Don Giovanni

Royal Opera

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, 11 June 2007 3 stars

Marina Poplavskaya

Mixture is at the heart of Don Giovanni. Even more than in the other two operas that Mozart wrote with Lorenzo da Ponte - Le nozze di Figaro and Cosý fan tutte - the composer employs a wide range of musical styles that collide in a piece that is almost sui generis. Mozart may have regarded it as an opera buffa, but there are too many contrasts within the opera to dismiss it as a mere comedy.

As Tim Carter's brilliant programme note for the Royal Opera's latest revival reminds us, the dramatis personae of Don Giovanni inhabit several different worlds. Donna Anna is the aristocratic woman and all her music is written in a stilted, old-fashioned opera seria style. Donna Elvira, whom Don Giovanni has successfully seduced but nevertheless retains a high social rank, flits between seria and buffo styles. And Zerlina, the peasant girl, is an unashamed comic character with music to match; indeed, when Don Giovanni sings with her in their famous duet 'LÓ ci darem la mano', he comes down to her social level in the second half of the number ('Andiam, andiam, mio bene') to sing in the simple 6/8 style that was associated with the peasant class in the festive chorus sung only minutes earlier. Don Ottavio - Donna Anna's perennially boring lover - is a character right out of opera seria, and even his name suggests the old-fashioned eighteenth-century man. Masetto is a country bumpkin and Mozart portrays him as such in banal music. More subtly, Leporello is the manservant to a gentleman, and is partly able to inhabit his world musically when he adopts his costume in Act Two. But Don Giovanni himself is something of a mystery, an enigmatic figure of the Enlightenment who has no scruples about the social standing of the women he sleeps with; he is mercurial, elegant, aristocratic and sly, and the prospect of hell means nothing to him (again, an Enlightened attitude, though in this production it also seems a by-product of the director's portrayal of him as the Devil himself).

Some of these characteristics of the opera are brought home successfully in Francesca Zambello's production, revived here by Duncan Macfarland. Maria Bj÷rnson's sets evoke religion via candles, icons and crosses, but the death scene is unwisely played as a farce, with exaggerated flames shooting up the stage and a large flaming hand swinging in from the wings to point the finger at the Don, who is seen seducing a woman in hell during the closing seconds of the opera. If the opera is subtitled 'The dissolute one punished', why undermine the punishment so fatally? More efficiently, the costumes clearly differentiate between the social standing of the three women and Ottavio. Some of the direction is highly inspired: for instance, when Donna Anna sings of Giovanni's attempted rape of her in her beautiful accompagnato of Act One, she writhes around on the floor as if re-enacting the scene. These and other gestures work well.

However, in most other respects, my reservations about this production remain the same as in the last revival. In particular, I feel extremely reticent about the promotion of the homoerotic aspects of the Don's character and behaviour over his heterosexuality, which is surely discussed more overtly. In Zambello's vision, it seems that Giovanni and Leporello are two sides of the same coin, and their interchangeability - not only in the famous scene where Leporello is forced to dress up as Giovanni but in their general physical resemblance - has a decided eroticism about it. When Giovanni turns on Masetto in the second act, hits him and tantalises him with his gun, he seems to derive sexual pleasure from it. His servants are all dressed in the same devilish red costumes in the Act One finale that he wears throughout, suggesting narcissism. And in the death scene, the Don is wearing nothing but silken pyjama bottoms, which, combined with his long hair, makes him a surprisingly androgynous character.

Some of this is highly effective, especially as regards the reflexivity of the Giovanni-Leporello relationship. But it seemed to me that none of the women were portrayed as objects of desire to the Don, which makes them rather redundant. While it is true that he fails to seduce any women during the course of the opera, surely the fact that that is unusual is what it is all about? I'd like to have more of a sense that this is a bad day for the normally triumphant serial seducer, but this production seems to suggest that he spends his time talking about seducing women but desiring himself. Maybe it would be more palatable were the sets not so excruciating and the lighting so dim. The central piece of scenery resembles a toilet wall much of the time, and it is hard not to wish for lavishness and a strong period setting when the score is so ravishingly gorgeous. So many of the effects - such as the pointing finger in the closing scene and the walls closing in on all the characters in the first-act finale - are anti-climactic.

Musically, this was a very mixed affair too. Ivor Bolton drew some sumptuous, lucid playing out of the ROH orchestra, making all kinds of effective decisions such as banishing vibrato in the strings, highlighting the cello line near the end of Zerlina's 'Batti, batti', and most of all, revelling in the use of the clarinet (the opera was written during the height of Mozart's love affair with the instrument). But he was playing a very dangerous game with the tempi, and the performance nearly came unstuck several times. On the whole, Bolton's speeds were very, very slow, which caused problems for most of the singers at some point. Ottavio's 'Dalla sua pace', for instance, was taken at a very sluggish tempo, which combined with a decision to perform the aria at an extremely quiet dynamic to ruin the number. Then occasionally, he suddenly moved at a much faster speed than is traditional, for instance in Elvira's 'Mi tradý'.

As it happens, Ana MarÝa MartÝnez sang the role of Donna Elvira splendidly and coped well with this extremity of tempo. Although occasionally a little harsh for Mozart, her full-blooded attack of the notes brought life to her character, and she deserved the loud cheer at the curtain call. I can scarcely believe it was the same singer who proved such a disaster in La traviata a couple of years ago.

Kyle Ketelsen also managed to overcome the oddities of the production and make something interesting of his character, Leporello. His Italianate sound and excellent linguistic skills helped him to mould a persuasive interpretation. And both his voice and bearing were far more elegant than those of Erwin Schrott, playing the title role for the first time at Covent Garden. Although his voice is powerful and attractive, I was not remotely convinced by the way Schrott portrayed the character. There was no dignity or wit, such as one might find in Simon Keenlyside's version of the Don, and he had such a blank expression and stark, pale, glam-rock face and hair that I was reminded, somewhat unfortunately, of Marilyn Manson (though this was partly the result of the production's deliberate concept of sexual ambiguity). There was no fear, no authority and no danger about him, so despite impressive singing, I did not feel engaged with his character.

Perhaps the biggest story of the night was the replacement of superstar diva Anna Netrebko by Jette Parker Young Artist Marina Poplavskaya in the role of Donna Anna. At times, Poplavskaya's voice was reminiscent of the young Kiri Te Kanawa, producing a similar kind of purity and line, and she looked the part to perfection. However, she did struggle a little with the tessitura and phrasing of her Act One aria, 'Or sai, chi l'onore', in part because of Bolton's ridiculously enervated tempo. To a degree, this makes one wonder whether she has yet got the stamina to play such big roles as Tatiana and Elisabetta at the ROH next year. However, her youthful looks should be ideal for the characters; her voice is beauty itself, and she has the stage presence of a great actress.

By contrast and despite his height and large voice, Reinhard Hagen lacked stage presence as the Commendatore and Michael Schade was surprisingly underpowered as Ottavio, though he negotiated some of the chromatic runs in 'Il mio tesoro' very impressively and was also a victim of slow tempi. Sarah Fox sang with a creamy tone as Zerlina, but there was little emotional connection between her and Giovanni; ex-Young Artist Matthew Rose was dazzling as Masetto, excelling both vocally and physically - the sooner he's promoted to one of the bigger roles, the better.

Ultimately, I think this production will never be wholly satisfactory. Even in the second cast of the original run, with Mackerras and Keenlyside involved, it left questions in the air. But there's still plenty to enjoy here, and with Poplavskaya, there is the opportunity to hear a star in the making. Don't miss it on the big screens in Covent Garden and around the country, on Wednesday night.

By Dominic McHugh