Cast B of the present run of Don Giovanni at the Royal Opera House had two changes shortly before their opening.
Due to illness, Lorenzo Regazzo had to withdraw from the role of Leporello. Alex Esposito, who was due to sing Masetto but whose repertory included Leporello, was moved up to sing the role.
Levente Molnár had never sung Masetto, but while singing the title role in the Budapest Opera House and also in Cluj-Napoca (Romania), he became familiar with Masetto's part. When on 5 September the Royal Opera House asked him if he could sing Masetto, Molnár said 'yes' and learnt the part in two days. Less than three weeks later he made his Royal Opera House debut.
Cast B presented a very different take on Mozart's music and Francesca Zambello's directional concept. Conductor Antonio Pappano produced some magical beauty and often allowed – or perhaps encouraged - his singers to take plenty of time over their phrases. I am not sure what Mozart would have thought of such flexibility but Verdi or Puccini would have probably approved. And while my intellect was puzzled, my senses relished the warmth and beauty. Pappano conducted as well as played the harpsichord continuo with the continuo cellist very close to him. This presented a different balance from the cast A run when the harpsichord and continuo cellist were placed at the far end of the orchestra pit. With the harpsichord in central position, cast B singers were never far from the continuo group which is their only support during the recitatives. I was particularly impressed with the solo cello during Zerlina's aria 'Batti, batti, o bel Masetto'. In cast A one could have thought that the piece was a cello solo with soprano accompaniment. Here in cast B the cellist was discreet and allowed Zerlina to be heard effortlessly.
Mariusz Kwiecien presented an excellently sung Don Giovanni. With much shorter hair (that is with a wig of much shorter length) than Simon Keenlyside in the role, he was a ruthless, egotist male relishing his power. However, his final journey into the abyss, portrayed by Zambello as an insane man's entry to the afterworld, did not grow organically as in Keenlyside's portrayal.
The quality of Ian Bostridge's voice as well as his stage persona were excellently suited to the role of Don Ottavio. Bostridge sang his arias with subdued beauty and supported his Donna Anna with utmost consideration. This time Donna Anna, Patrizia Ciofi, sounded like a sensitive but unsure person who cannot quite decide what to do. Surely this is the best way to portray Donna Anna, who otherwise might come across as an opportunist misusing Don Ottavio's devotion.
Zerlina (Rebecca Evans) and Masetto (Levente Molnár) were an utter delight. Excellently sung and acted, the characters appeared genuine and most charming. With Molnár twice Evans' size, the humour of Zerlina's twisting her beloved Masetto around her little finger was heightened. In Molnár's portrayal Masetto is down to earth, loving and hugely anxious about the threat which the Don poses to Masetto's marital bliss with Zerlina. In far too many productions Masetto appears easily duped but Molnár shows an additional dimension.
Leporello (Alex Esposito) was of the same height as his master Don Giovanni. This made their role swap/disguise more credible and gave Donna Elvira more of an excuse for not recognising – or for pretending not to recognise? – that she was spending quality time with Leporello, not with her beloved Don. Full marks for Espositio's singing and acting, but Emma Bell may not be ideally suited to the role of Donna Elvira.
The final climax – the Don's entry to the afterworld – lacked the sublime power and excitement which the Mackerras/Keenlyside/Halfvarson ensemble created in cast A, but this was a fully enjoyable evening.
Interviews with singers appearing in this production:
Photographs: Catherine Ashmore.
The season continues on 10 October with a revival of Puccini's La boheme.