Mozart: Don Giovanni

Royal Opera

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, 9 September 2008 4 stars

Simon Keenlyside as Don Giovanni,Catherine AshmoreThe 2008-09 Royal Opera House season started with a difference.

The opening night, a performance of  Mozart's Don Giovanni, was meant to be available only for readers of the Sun newspaper who in turn specified availability only for those who were new to opera. All seats had been bought by the Sun who then sold on the seats for £5 - £30 each (therefore for less than a fifth of the regular prize) to first time opera goers. To broaden the appeal further, the performance was relayed to 113 cinemas across the UK and Europe. Generous financial support provided by the Helen Hamlyn Trust made the event financially viable. The evening was dedicated to the memory of the late Lord Hamlyn.  

Before the performance Tony Hall, Chief Executive of the Royal Opera House, appeared in front of the curtains and greeted the audience of first-timers. Hall received an enthusiastic applause - but from whom? It was hard to find Sun readers among the audience, and first-timers, too, were far and few between. Some people left after the interval: apparently they were genuine first-timers. It is true that my chance to interview people among the audience were limited. But a report shown on BBC 1's Breakfast show the following morning came to a similar conclusion. They presented a member of the audience who rejected the notion of the Sun because (as he repeated three times) he was a Guardian reader. And there were both those who had been to opera before and some who had not.

Kyle Ketelsen, Simon Keenlyside, Catherine AshmoreSo who was the audience for the opening night of the season? Mostly knowledgeable but impoverished opera lovers who hugely appreciated the opportunity to attend within their financial means. I spoke to many! Of the first timers few are likely to return – even with financial assistance – as money is not the sole attribute to the appreciation of opera. When school teachers co-operate with the ROH's educational department (and prepare their pupils properly for relevant opera performances), the ROH's ongoing school matinees are likely to make a more significant contribution to the audience of the future. In the meantime, hopefully low-income people will have further opportunities to enjoy such magnificent ROH opera performances as Don Giovanni was on this opening night.

Sir Charles Mackerras' knowledge and flair for Mozart's style was evident throughout. I have never heard such stylish rendering of the stage band music as on this occasion. Mackerras's tempi were exemplary all the way through, thus allowing the singers and orchestra to live Mozart's phrases, shapes, emotions and humour. And rhythm, the motor of all music, is always strongly manifested in Mackerras' performances.

Simon Keenlyside's Don Giovanni is a virtuoso performance. His portrayal of the daring and devilish Don is mesmerising, his near acrobatic skills are used to great effect and he sings beautifully. His serenade to Elvira's maid – the Canzonetta 'Deh vieni alla finestra' – was almost heartbreaking.

The other great singer on stage was Eric Halfvarson in the role of the Commendatore. The interaction between Keenlyside and Halfvarson created a rare artistic unity in both of their encounters, both of which end in dramatic death: the Commendatore dies at the beginning of the opera and he takes the not unwilling Don with him at the end. Francesca Zambello's directional concept emphasizes the strength of this relationship but without two such great singers (and Mackerras' musical support) these encounters would have lost their significance. The dazzling pyrotechnics at the final death scene were impressive but the high drama of these moments were supplied by Mackerras, Halfvarson and Keenlyside.

Kyle Ketelsen (Leporello), too, was an excellent partner to Keenlyside's Don. His singing was immaculate and his acting supportive as, indeed, his character had to be to the Don.

Simon Keenlyside,Catherine AshmoreTo me it is not clear why Marina Poplavskaya, singing the role of Donna Anna, felt the need to notify the audience about her sinus infection. She sounded in good vocal form, although initially a few of her notes were not perfectly pitched. These kind of announcements are more frequent in opera houses than I would wish for. One can either perform (in which case why make the audience uneasy with the announcement?) or not (in which case let us hear the understudy, who surely would love to perform).   

Full praise goes to Joyce DiDonato for her debut in the role of the fiery but vulnerable Donna Elvira. Ramón Vargas delivered an excellent vocal and musical performance but with a boring character like Don Ottavio there is not much one can do in the acting department. Miah Persson's Zerlina was more authorative than innocent but both her and Robert Gleadow (Masetto) sang to a high standard.

I was puzzled about director Francesca Zambello's handling of the choir. At times they appear on stage for no apparent reason. When the Don invites the statue for dinner, they just freeze: presumably they represent statues, but they distract from the story line.

I liked the idea of the colour of costumes, designed by the late Maria Björnson, signifying characters in the drama. Don Giovanni wore hellish red and purple, and so did his servants and musicians. Leporello was greyish – what else can a sidekick be? – although red and purple when disguised as the Don. The aristocrats – Donna Anna, Don Ottavio and Donna Elvira – wore turquoise or blue although there were some variations during the plot. The noble Commendatore was shown in black and white, and finally also in silver. I am not sure why the peasants - Zerlina, Masetto and the group of workers – wore white all way through: was this meant to be a sign of innocence or was white the colour of working clothes? I was fully confused when, in the concluding sextet, all the characters wore white: were they purified by the Don's death?

In spite of the few confusing moments in the production, this is a great performance to cherish. 

By Agnes Kory

Interviews with singers appearing in this production:

Simon Keenlyside
Kyle Ketelsen
Marina Poplavskaya
Joyce DiDonato
Rebecca Evans (Cast B)
Patrizia Ciofi (Cast B)
Francesca Zambello (director)

Previous revival of this production:
Review here.

The season continues on 16 September with a revival of Puccini's La fanciulla del West starring Jose Cura, whom we interviewed about the role last week. Click here to read the full article.