Following his atmospheric production of Britten's The Turn of the Screw for Opera North two years ago, director Alessandro Talevi has decided to bathe Mozart's darkest opera in a fresh light. Comedy, burlesque, funny walks and puppetry are major ingredients of his new production which I must confess I had been anticipating with a degree of trepidation. Talevi has resisted the temptation to create something shocking and outrageous that would have been alien to Mozart and Da Ponte's sublimely crafted opera. The young Johannesburg-born director has instead combined innovation with tradition in a fast-paced production that is likely to appeal to younger opera goers whilst not offending seasoned subscribers.
Time, place or setting is not specific; Madeleine Boyd's generic set for both acts, beautifully lit by Matthew Haskins, is decorated with portraits of figures in 18th century costumes. During the overture the front piece shows a small picture frame window with heavily embroidered theatre-style curtains. I was immediately reminded of the curtained stage of a Punch and Judy theatre.
Talevi has made most of the characters into larger than life figures of which perhaps only the Don emerges, for all his wickedness and debauchery, as the most emotionally strong flesh and blood character. Costumes indicate the respective social echelons of the characters and range from 19th century to the present day. Giovanni and his long suffering servant Leperello are costumed circa 1920s, the former wears formal or casual suits of the period and a black bowler hat. Leporello is distinguished by his variety of colourful checked jackets and trousers; he sports a straw boater and walking stick. The pair reminded me at times of Bertie Wooster and Jeeves. On the other hand Michael Druiett's bulky Commendatore with shaven head, white faced and wearing immaculate black tails bears an uncanny resemblance to Alexei Sayle. Donna Anna and her betrothed, the self-righteous Don Ottavio, are costumed as befits 19th century nobility. The bejewelled Donna Elvira makes her entrance in a heavy hooded black cloak which she casts aside to reveal a glittery white bridal skirt and top. Zerlina's suitor, Masetto, and his oafish friends are dressed like 1950s teddy boys with luxuriant waved hair with big quiffs, long jackets and big shoes with crepe soles whose giant striding steps during the song and dance chorus wonderfully choreographed by Victoria Newlyn, in honour of Zerlina's approaching marriage could be Pythonesque or maybe Groucho Marx. In Act ll, Don Giovanni, when he has disguised himself as Leporello with the latter's straw boater in order to re-conquer Elvira, throws Masetto and his cronies off his scent; they are required to crawl on their hands and knees around the stage making pig-like snorts and grunts - one of Talevi's more discomforting touches but a potent symbol of the Don's contempt for humanity in general and these peasants in particular.
A comedy stroke that should have come off but doesn't quite manage to is during Elvira's aria "Ah, fuggi il traditor" in which she ushers Zerlina away from Giovanni. The two ladies are required to run on the spot for the duration of this aria as an illuminated street lamp behind them moves slowly towards stage right creating the impression that they are running away.
The use of the picture frame window comes into its own as the characters act out in miniature various events. The clever device whereby the singer's face fills the window and appears to be attached to a tiny puppet size body with moving arms and legs (presumably operated by the singer) is very funny. We see a puppet of Masetto being beaten up by the Don in this fashion and then Elvira sparring like Punch and Judy with Leporello masquerading as his master.
Having the head and shoulders of Donna Anna visible in the window to sing "Non mi dir" I thought was a mistake, since it restricted the range of dramatic expression the soprano was able to convey to the audience (I don't mean vocally). It would have been preferable to have been able to see the whole singer on stage.
Whereas Talevi tends to overlay the comedy, the sexual aspect of the opera is not over-egged and is in fact discreetly conveyed although not too subtly in the case of Zerlina’s impassioned performance of "Batti, batti, o bel Masetto". Zerlina's betrothed lies on the floor and she lifts her frock and sits astride him; their movements suggest the sexual act. Zerlina's ecstatic singing of the words "Si, si, si" towards the end of that aria indicated to the delight and amusement of a packed Grand Theatre that Masetto had hit the spot!
Swedish conductor Tobias Ringborg elicits a crisp and delicate account of the score from the Orchestra of Opera North. He let the brass have too much of a free hand for the Overture but apart from that, textures were scrupulously balanced and Ringborg allowed the great ensemble numbers to breathe and swell. This production is well served by an attractive cast which combines experience with promise. "Old hands" William Dazeley as the Don and Alastair Miles as Leporello notched up notable successes in Opera North's recent Don Carlo as Posa and King Philip ll. They appear to be enjoying themselves immensely as the Spanish philanderer and his put-upon servant; you can smell that essential chemistry between these two characters. Dazeley's Don is velvet-smooth although he lacks the refulgent tone that Roderick Williams brought to the role in Opera North's previous production back in 2005. Dazeley knows how to spin a phrase:his famous Champagne Aria is thrilling and incisive whilst the serenade "Deh, vieni alla finestra" is a model of legato phrasing and delicious colouring of the words.
For this writer though, the revelation of the evening was Alastair Miles' realisation of Leporello. I have previously seen this fine singer in "heavy" roles viz Méphistophélès, King Philip ll, Zaccaria – to imagine that such nimble movement, comic timing and amusing facial expressions lurked beneath a somewhat dour exterior. Vocally and dramatically his Leporello is all that I could have wished; delivery of the Catalogue Aria showed that Miles is equally at home in the basso buffo repertory. In fact he's miles better (forgive the pun!) than any previous Leporello that I can recall since I saw Geraint Evans and Gabriel Bacquier decades ago. Elizabeth Atherton's feisty Donna Elvira exudes the required anger and vengeance, tinged with a readiness to forgive. Every note of Elvira's demanding "Mi tradi quell’alma ingrata" was coloured and accurately placed. Much the same could be said of Meeta Raval's dignified and aristocratic Donna Anna who effortlessly surmounted the fiendishly difficult colaratura in her gorgeously sung "Non mir dir". Although this exquisite aria could be said to interrupt rather than contribute to the dramatic development of the opera, exclusion on those (or any other) grounds would be unthinkable. So why has Don Ottavio's "Il mio tesoro" been axed? I can't imagine it was because the excellent Christopher Turner for Opera North, like the very first Ottavio, simply found the aria too demanding. However, we should be grateful for small mercies; at least Ottavio's less taxing but equally beautiful "Dalla sua pace" is retained. Turner's elegant style and honeyed tone in this aria is perfectly complemented by swooning phrases from the strings and winds of the Orchestra of Opera North. Claire Wild's focused and creamy toned Zerlina allied to her lively characterisation illuminated every one of her scenes. Oliver Dunn's rich bass and striking appearance made for an impressive Masetto although it is still difficult to see what Zerlina sees in this rather stolid, lumpish character - small wonder she's tempted by the charm and allure of Giovanni. The casting of Heldenbariton Michael Druiett (Wotan in Opera North's Das Rheingold and The Wanderer in next year's Siegfried) as Il Commendatore gave a smooth and sonorous authority to the role - a welcome change for my ear from the grainy basses that I have sometimes heard.
For the final dramatic supper scene, an icy beckoning hand protrudes from a trap door centre stage. There is no sense of the usual blazing furnace of hell; instead, a chilling, shadowy otherworld evoked by Haskins' lighting. A troupe of ghostly ladies in bridal outfits point accusingly at Giovanni before he disappears into eternity, hoisted on wires fifty feet up to the grid. I must confess that I felt rather apprehensive for William Dazeley at this point. The ladies reminded me of the wives of Bluebeard - but there were more of them! For as Giovanni said earlier to Leporello: "If I had been faithful to one of them, that would have been cruel to all the others".
This enjoyable and, it must be said, entertaining production of Don Giovanni continues in Leeds and on tour to Salford Lowry Theatre, Newcastle Theatre Royal and Nottingham Theatre Royal. There are some cast changes from the end of October.
Photographs © Robert Workman