thu 13/06/2024

Don Giovanni, Garsington Opera | reviews, news & interviews

Don Giovanni, Garsington Opera

Don Giovanni, Garsington Opera

Exceptional night of realism from director Daniel Slater

Gum-chewing Zerlina (Mary Bevan) flirts with Don Giovanni's chauffeur Leporello (Joshua Bloom)Photo credit: Mike Hoban

For all but two of its 30 years in business, Garsington Opera has had Mozart in each and every season. He's the nearest this company gets to a resident composer. While everything else at the seasonal operation is in flux, their Mozart is a constant. And as with any long-running relationship, there is a confidence in the coming together of the two of them that usually makes any new Mozart production at Garsington one of the Summer highlights. This year was no exception. 

We began the night, however, with a cliche. Like many a director before him, Daniel Slater chose to relocate the 18th-century lothario to an American Psycho-type context: Don Giovanni as a high-flying solipsist, Leporello as his chauffeur. But cliche doesn't accompany deja vu. For this very familiar updating is sculpted in the most unusual and brilliant way. Grant Doyle's property developer Don Giovanni is in control - of the women, the men, the music and the mains. The night opens with him flicking on the lights to this swanky block of minimalist apartments. In one flat, the aspirational chavs: gum-chewing Zerlina and lycra-clad Masetto, ready for their big fat gypsy wedding. In another, the city boy, Ottavio, a Giovanni wannabe, and Anna, whose twisted sexual habits sets off this cascade of rape and murder. In another minimal box, Sophie Bevan's Elvira, a snivelling wreck, but ready to return to her brute at the drop of a hat.

Not a single scene, sentiment or word was stranded in the 18th century

Innocence is no where to be found. Good and bad are intermingled. Mozart's score (given a bracing outing by Douglas Boyd and the Garsington Opera Orchestra) does the same; it makes no judgements. In fact, it skewers you with counter-intuitive messages. Just as you think you've got the measure of a character, it confounds you: Zerlina the low-grade tart becomes Zerlina the paragon of love and forgiveness. Slater makes the most of these psychological complexities and finds 21st century homes for all of them.

Not a single scene, sentiment or word (the libretto translation had been neatly tweaked) was stranded in the 18th century. Everything had been thought of, thought through and brought into the the present day. The lover's list became a spread sheet on a computer print out. The musical quotations become opera DVDs that Giovanni flicks through over dinner. Finicky updatings of this kind can come across as contrived. But Slater's analogies are too clever and too well choreographed. Most clever and well choreographed was Giovanni's descent into hell. Slater brings a brilliantly rational sense to bear on this supernatural ending. Don Giovanni's penalty for a life of greed and obsession is a living death, sedated and wheelchair-bound, the white walls of his swish, sinful world morphing into the white walls of a mental institution.

There was a vocal and theatrical strength in the cast that made Slater's job easier. Grant Doyle (pictured with Mary and Sophie Bevan right) and his aggressively floppy hair were made to play Mozart's semi-seductive baddies. As with his Figaro a few years back, his Giovanni was laced with a compelling menace throughout, a rendition that had just enough charm that you could understand why Elvira would return to him. Casting the piercing and powerful voice of Natasha Jouhl as the twisted, S&M-loving feminist Anna was a stroke of genius. She deserved a medal for her sotto voce in "Non mi dir", delivered half-naked and in the freezing cold. 

Callum Thorpe was a strong Masetto and Mary Bevan a characterful Zerlina. Joshua Bloom's Leporello was excellently slimy. Accompanied by the fantastic young Garsington chorus, Christophoros Stamboglis's dying but not quite dead Commendatore, a Harvey Weinstein figure, re-emerged from his hospital bed in the final scene and electrified the evening. Only Jesús León's casual Ottavio disappointed. But the night belonged to Sophie Bevan's Elvira. Unlike most great operatic actresses who develop their stage presence to compensate for vocal failings, Bevan really can sing. She starts with a meaty and technically assured vocal sound and uses it to paint extraordinary psychological portraits. The journey her rendition of "Mi tradi quell'alma ingrata" ("That ungrateful wretch betrayed me") took from shouty anger to exhausted self-pity was a thing of bitter wonder. 

In one final clever move, Slater gives Ottavio a central role in Giovanni's downfall. One that leaves Ottavio free to take over his empire. It will soon be another poor girl's turn to sing Elvira's song. 

The journey Bevan's rendition of 'Mi tradi quell'alma ingrata' took from shouty anger to exhausted self-pity was a thing of bitter wonder

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