Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff
Fri 16 Sept
words: STEPHEN NOTTINGHAM
Setting the Mozart/da Ponte opera Don Giovanni against a backdrop of sculpture by Auguste Rodin, in particular his monumental The Gates of Hell, is such a good idea that you wonder why no-one had thought of it before.
The inspiration came to Designer John Napier one night, when he was pondering how to convincingly bring a statue to life. Director John Caird worked closely with Napier, and Lighting Designer David Hersey, to achieve this vision. Caird notes that Rodin’s sculptures combine sex and death, the central themes of the opera, and depict naked figures emerging or returning to stone.
The setting, Rodin aside, is the opera’s original one of 18th Century Seville, wonderfully evoked with costumes co-designed by Yoon Bae. The opera is sung in Italian (with English and Welsh surtitles) and is enacted on a stage that often appears filled with sculpture; blocks of realistic-looking bronze glide around effortlessly in an elaborate choreography of scenery.
The First Act opens with the rich, hedonistic and immoral Don Giovanni (David Kempster), aided by servant Leporello (David Soar), attempting to rape Donna Anna (Camilla Roberts). As he makes his escape, Don Giovanni is challenged by Donna Anna’s father, the Commendatore (Carlo Malinverno). Don Giovanni kills the old man in an underhand manner. In this production, the Commendatore’s statue (based on Rodin’s marble-hewn Balzac) appears as soon as he dies, and is a brooding presence throughout much of the opera. Anna and her husband Don Ottavio (Robin Tritschler) become the first of many seeking revenge.
The comedy is more black humour than period farce. There are some misfires arising from this, such as the updating of the list book in the dark opening scene. Leporello soon gets to read out this list of the Don’s sexual conquests (which is of Russell Brandish proportions) in his catalogue aria, to Donna Elvira (Nuccia Focile) who is deluded enough to think the Don loves her.
The David’s Kempster and Soar make a fine double act, especially when they exchange identities at the start of Act Two. Nuccia Focile and Camille Roberts excel in their roles as the conflicted Elvira and the mourning Anna, respectively. Tenor Robin Tritschler got the loudest post-aria applause on opening night. His thoughtful Don Ottavio is given particular prominence here, as a thinker in opposition to the unthinking Don Giovanni.
The staging does have its downsides, being at times over-imposing and lacking in variety. At the peasant wedding, for instance, when you anticipate a sunny optimistic mood swing, the scene cannot escape the nocturnal gloom inherent in the scenery. Better is the shift to the Don’s palace at the climax of Act One, where the sculptures become his art collection: The Thinker and The Kiss on opposite sides of his ballroom.
The Don has invited the wedding party because he has taken a fancy to the bride Zerlina (a spirited performance by Claire Ormshaw). He tells Leporello to occupy the bridegroom Masetto (Gary Griffiths in fine form), so he can have his way with Zerlina (Droit de Seigneur, as he sees it). Three groups of on-stage musicians play dance tune styles in three different time signatures (an aristocratic minuet, a bourgeoisie alemana, and a peasant follia) as the social discord builds on the overcrowded stage. Yes, it’s really tricky to pull off musically, but here it appears fairly effortless.
Under Conductor Lothar Koenigs the WNO orchestra are reaching new heights of excellence. Don Giovanni, with its complex instrumentation and dramatic shifts, is a good piece for appreciating how good they are.
The Second Act becomes darker when Don Giovanni encounters the Commendatore’s statue in a graveyard and invites him to a feast. The statue, of course, duly arrives, heralded by a blast of trombones (the genesis of horror film music).
The creative team behind this opera were responsible for Les Misérables and their collective CVs list a remarkable track record of hit plays, musicals and operas. At the climax here, they draw upon all their stagecraft experience to conjour a thrilling descent into hell for Don Giovanni, as The Gates of Hell open.
With its innovative designs, an orchestra at the peak of its powers, and a terrific ensemble cast, this Don Giovanni is not to be missed.
Don Giovanni can be seen at the WMC on Fri 23, Sun 25 and Fri 30 Sept, and Wed 5 October, and at Swansea Grand Theatre on Wed 19 and Fri 21 Oct 2011.