Stephen Barlow's new Don Giovanni for Opera Holland Park is a curious creature – gloss and assured sophistication jostle with basic technical issues, insight with bizarre directorial choices. It's as though director and cast have caught sight of a great production, but only momentarily and out of the corner of their collective eye. What frustrations there are however are more than equalled by delights, not least of which is the prospect of this talented director fully finding his feet.
Transporting the clubbable and lascivious Don to Edwardian England, Barlow sets him up in a country hotel, complete with wood panelling, leather armchairs, and a feature-wall covered solely in pictures of Don Giovanni himself – more than a nod toward the figure of Dorian Gray whose own sybaritic fate looms large over this production. It's hard to imagine polite Edwardian society countenancing – or even presenting the opportunity for – the misdeeds of our hero, but plausibility aside the transposition works well enough, even making some sense of the painfully prim Don Ottavio and his timorous courtship.
A strategically placed bloodstain provides a convenient visual touchstone for the production's fatalism, setting up from the very start of the opera the inevitability of our outcome. As a sequence of maids and butlers take their turn scrubbing at it, we glance even further back among the Don's forebears to Lady Macbeth, the evidence of the remorse that Don Giovanni himself never demonstrates.
Musically Holland Park's outdoor theatre is a tough venue. Denied the convenience of a sunken pit, the musicians occupy a very long and thin section at the front of the stage, a set-up that causes problems for all but the most canny of conductors. Here Robert Dean failed to adequately address the lag between his string section and instruments at the outer reaches; timpani, horns and woodwind all struggled with ensemble, threatening the already shaky accord between stage and orchestra even further. Even more fundamental however were the balance issues caused, with the orchestra simply too loud, obscuring much of the wit of the recitatives and any gentler passages of singing. It may be in response to this that the cast as a whole tended to adopt a rather one-size-fits-all approach to dynamics, sustaining a solid mf for the majority of the time. The single exception – Claire Wild's beautifully nuanced Zerlina – achieved a great deal of impact through delicacy, pulling back expressively from the fight rather than attempting to take on the loaded battle with the orchestra.
Among a strong cast, it was the women who took the musical laurels, led by Ana James' creamy Donna Anna. Occasionally a little blunt in her Act I delivery, Act II saw her come into her own with a gorgeously poised 'Non mi dir', showcasing a blooming upper register. Laura Mitchell's Donna Elvira matched her for power if not quite for beauty of tone, occasionally tending toward the shrill, even allowing for the histrionic delivery the part seems to demand.
While the men proved the stronger actors, musically they were less remarkable. Swaggering and strutting, Nicholas Garrett's Don had a powerful stage presence, particularly in his seduction scenes, but lacked the cruel humour that his dealings with Leporello can so often bring out. Humour throughout was somewhat limp, with obvious opportunities missed to bring out this essential element of the libretto, often on the part of Matthew Hargreaves' Leporello. The stronger of the two baritones, Hargreaves had moments of real beauty, but like Garrett often seemed to sacrifice tone quality and projection for the dramatic side of things. Thomas Walker's Don Ottavio was rather unexpected – more powerful than the tenor's usually cast in this lyric role, his was a pleasingly direct and robust delivery, if occasionally lacking finesse in his ornamentation.
There were some beautifully original touches; Masetto leaving Zerlina alone, unforgiven, during 'Vedrai carino', Donna Anna entering in Act II with a loaded shotgun, Zerlina and Masetto getting frisky during the final chorus. It all brought a freshness and interest to proceedings that I haven't felt for a while, throwing off the sense of familiarity that can dull the engagement with a classic work. If Barlow is able to unite such small details into a broader arc of interpretation and motivation it seems likely that this already strong production could become truly great. Until then, its glossy sets and solid cast provide excuse enough to take advantage of the weather and take a dose of outdoor opera this summer.