tue 16/07/2024

Don Giovanni, Royal Opera | reviews, news & interviews

Don Giovanni, Royal Opera

Don Giovanni, Royal Opera

No amount of flames can generate heat in this lazy revival

Young love: Zerlina (Kyriakidou) consoles Plachetka's Masetto.Mike Hoban

Francesca Zambello’s production of Don Giovanni may only be 10 years old, but is already showing signs of decrepitude. Even back in its youth in 2002-3, this staging never had much of a spring in its step, but at least there were some fantastic casts to compensate.

Bryn Terfel, Anna Netrebko, Simon Keenlyside and Erwin Schrott have all taken their turn here, but even with Gerald Finley returning in the title role there’s little the current incumbents can do to do rescue this aged and confused attempt at a seduction.

Set outside what appears to be a particularly ugly municipal swimming pool c1990 – all glass panes and curving edges – Zambello’s tragedy plays out under the constant gaze of a Madonna. Perched precariously (and nonsensically) above the action, hands aloft in pity or helplessness, the statue is as ineffectual a moral framing device as the closing ensemble, though seemingly lacking any of Mozart’s irony. The Act I finale calls the revolve into play, flipping us from 1990s modernism into rather half-hearted 1790s decadence, and making brief sense of the quasi-authentic jewel coloured costumes. Visually it’s all functional enough, but really the best that can be said for the late Maria Bjørnson’s designs is that (with the exception of the suspended hand of doom that signals the Commendatore’s acquiescence – a bewildering piece of visual distraction) they don’t actively get in the way.

There’s little specificity to the production and still less psychology, leaving singers desperately alone and exposed dramatically. If revival director Duncan MacFarland had given Katarina Karnéus’s Donna Elvira any instructions other than to overact in a wilfully unfocused sort of way then they were never evident. Lorenzo Regazzo as Leporello missed more laughs than he hit, while Irini Kyriakidou’s Zerlina defied Mozart’s most exquisitely characterised vocal writing to deliver bland efficiency; even Gerald Finley’s Don (pictured right with Karneus as Elvira) was a rather quiet affair, lacking his usual presence and failing to bring the necessary menace to Mozart’s libertine. Vocally however his was certainly the most consistent performance of the night, his characteristically assured delivery lacking only the electricity that the production seemed to drain from everything it touched.

While Adam Plachetka’s dark-toned Masetto was a pleasant surprise – a personality and voice travelling easily out into the amphitheatre – and Matthew Polenzani (as a particularly Italianate Don Ottavio) conjured a miraculous pianissimo for the da capo of “Dalla sua pace”, Regazzo’s Leporello was the evening’s greatest disappointment. Under-projected both dramatically and vocally (can there be a voice that has fallen more steeply away from its early potential?), his was a catalogue aria almost entirely without laughs, and while he warmed up for the comedic seduction of Elvira it didn’t seem enough to compensate for the lack of earlier personality, or the blandness of his contribution to the fateful closing dinner scene.

Things improved somewhat with Hibla Gerzmava’s Donna Anna. Hers is a serious, lovely instrument, if occasionally pushing a little sharp in the upper registers, and a solid “Or sai chi l‘honore” grew into an altogether more delicately shaped “Crudele”. Perhaps the most interesting member of the current cast,  Karnéus never fully settled as Donna Elvira, some beautiful moments balanced by unusual passages of technical vulnerability; the latter end of “Mi tradi” felt distinctly tired, its demands telling both on the quality of vocal production and her dramatic delivery.

While Zambello’s production and a rather uncherished revival may be blamed for much, there were also a whole set of alternative issues emerging from Constantinos Carydis’s pit. An overture whose D minor ferocity was glimpsed only in the far distance, and even then only for teasing moments, set the tone for a performance of cut and paste music-making. There was no organic flow to tempos, which were either too fast or (most often) much too ponderous and slow, and defeated any sense of dramatic arc or development.

Carydis’s is a beautiful beat, but too often focused on expressive nuance while basic ensemble suffered. Tensions between voice and solo cello in “Batti, batti” made for a distinctly tense few minutes, while the chorus managed to botch one of their only entries in the Act I finale in spectacular style.

Such is the opera’s lack of heat that even 6 ft jets of flames in the damnation scene do little to hot things up. This was never a classic production, and on the basis of this lengthy revival (it is to be hoped that cast B, featuring Schrott among others will be an improvement) perhaps it’s time for the Royal Opera to admit defeat and put Zambello’s Don Giovanni to bed for good. Like the soul of the rakish Don himself, there simply isn’t enough here to make redemption an option.

The best that can be said for Maria Bjornson’s designs is that they don’t actively get in the way

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Your critic must have projected her own tiredness onto the stage so that she was not able to enjoy a lively and invigorating production and performance- or was I there on a better night ? i doubt it

Totally agree with Coghlan. Most sapid voices, except Anna & Ottavio. Couldn't even notice Commendatore at the dinner. Worst D.G. i've seen! 181 pounds down the drain.

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