Mozart: Don Giovanni

The Royal Opera

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, 23 January 2012 4 and a half stars

Mike HobanFor this pair of ears, musicality at its best is the dominant feature of the Royal Opera House's current revival of Don Giovanni. Conductor Constantinos Carydis's knowledge of Mozart's score is highly impressive from every point of view. Not only does Carydis conduct from memory during the entire performance but he brings together all voices – vocal as well as instrumental – into an integrated whole. Owing to the content of Mozart's score, some parts (such as those of principal singers) are more exposed than others but every part (however small, whether on stage or in the orchestra pit) is treated as essential. In Carydis' ensemble nobody is an accompanist, everybody is a significant contributor. Carydis carefully balances the hierarchy of voices at any given time, paying full attention to even the smallest details in the score. In his interpretation the alternation of major and minor scales is truly meaningful, like for instance in the beautifully judged brief modulation into minor mode during Leporello's catalogue aria ('Madamina, il catalogo è questo').    

Carydis's approach is mirrored by his performers. To stay with the above mentioned Leporello aria example, fortepiano continuo player Mark Packwood's masterly upbeat run into the aria is beautiful and, at the same time, assures the seamless link between recitative and aria. Packwood's continuo playing is nothing like the usual, somewhat dry and percussive accompaniment: his fortepiano 'sings' during Don Giovanni's attempted seduction of Zerlina (recitative 'Alfin siam liberati'). The solo cello part in Zerlina's aria ('Batti, batti, o bel Masetto') is intelligently articulated and Don Giovanni's canzonetta ('Deh vieni alla finestra') could serve as a masterclass for trio performances, this time for baritone voice, mandolin and conductor. Presumably one of the two principal cellists (George Ives, Christopher Vanderspar) played the solo cello part but there is no mention of the excellent mandolin player in the cast list and programme notes. Yet such an instrumental contribution surely merits recognition? Full praise is also due to the stage bands (in both finales) drawn from ROH's orchestra; they play with style, with perfect ensemble and – of course − from memory.    

All solo singers deliver highly musical, stylish and nuanced performances. Arguably Lorenzo Regazzo's voice is not ideally suited to the part of Leporello (which might be better served by a lower voice than that of Regazzo's to contrast the baritone role of Don Giovanni) but he is a very experienced Leporello and does the role justice. On the opening night Hibla Gerzmava (Donna Anna) did not have energy - that is, full vocal control - right to the end but she was magnificent earlier (especially during Donna Anna's dramatic recognition that her seducer, and therefore her father's murderer, was Don Giovanni).

Gerald Finley (Don Giovanni) is simply magnificent vocally, musically and dramatically. Whether in his energetic delivery of 'Fin ch'han dal vino', in his highly seductive 'Là ci darem la mano', in his tenderly sung 'Deh vieni alla finestra' or in his devilish final scene, Finley is fascinating and fully convincing. However, judging by the first night audience's reaction Matthew Polenzani (Don Ottavio) seems to have stolen the show. He does indeed sing exquisitely; his pianissimo in the recitative 'Come mai creder deggio' is particularly magical.      

Katarina Karnéus makes the difficult role of Donna Elvira credible. For once I understand Elvira's vulnerability coupled with desperate determination. Here she is not a mad woman which one often assumes. And Karnéus convinces vocally too. Irini Kyriakidou (Zerlina) is charming and sings well although she does not convince as a peasant girl. This may be the fault of the production: Zerlina's dress (perhaps her modest bridal dress?) is different from the dresses which the other peasant girls wear and, more importantly, she seems to have servants who assist her when they find the injured Masetto. Adam Plachetka (Masetto) and Marco Spotti (The Commendatore) are strong vocally and impressive dramatically.

Francesca Zambello's staging clearly states her views on sisterhood beyond class boundaries (Donna Anna, Donna Elvira and Zerlina are united in support for each other), on men beyond redemption (Don Giovanni continues his womanising even in hell) and on Elvira's sexual excess (the weapon she keeps carrying during several scenes may be a phallic symbol). But Zambello and her designer Maria Björnson also take note of Mozart's music when, for instance, they dress their ladies' stage bands (playing aristocratic music) in elegant costumes while those players who play peasant music are dressed in rough clothes.

The actual stage design had bad criticism elsewhere in the press but, in full honesty, I hardly noticed. My attention was grabbed by the beautiful costumes of various colours and, above all, by the superb musicality of the whole performance. Long may music rule...

By Agnes Kory

Photo credit: Mike Hoban

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