Don Giovanni: English National Opera, 17th October 2012

E-mail Print PDF

This was the first night of the revival of Rufus Norris’s controversial 2010 production, and I had been warned that I would not like it one little bit. In fact, I was going to hate it. “Too ugly for Mozart.” Consequently it came as something as a shock when I found myself becoming utterly captivated by it. For those who like their Wolfgang powdered, pomaded and perfumed, it may well prove to be a bridge too far. However, given that the little Austrian genius did not, in actual fact, fall off the lid of a chocolate box, and that he was an earthy, vibrant individual with a highly developed scatological sense of humour, I suspect that he would have rather approved of this staging.

Updated to the present day and costumed in modern dress by Genevieve Ellis, it draws heavily on the squalor and violence that are the inescapable consequence of the way in which Don Giovanni chooses to live his life. Ian MacNeil’s sets are a maelstrom of low walls adorned with ladders and stairs that, through being in almost perpetual whirling motion, create a febrile atmosphere that rarely abates. All tired paintwork, dingy tiles and hospital green and cream circa 1960, they create, with the aid of Paul Anderson’s harsh and sterile lighting design, a constantly changing vista of alleyways, bathrooms, bedrooms and public spaces that comprise the seedy world inhabited by the Don.

Jeremy Sams’s witty translation of the libretto perfectly complements the design concept. Teeming with twenty-first century argot, it is always inventive, frequently hilarious and often scabrous. Sams isn’t afraid to take liberties with da Ponte’s work, most notably in Zerlina’s two arias. “Batti, batti”, becomes a plea for some eye-wateringly sado-masochistic fun and games that cast an entirely new light on her and Masetto’s relationship, and the highly specific anatomical details of her cure for her lover’s wounds in “Vedrai, carino” are definitely not to be found in the original text.

Norris gives us a Giovanni who is a thoroughly repugnant character: a manipulative, bullying City wide-boy who won’t acknowledge that his best days are behind him. His murder of the Commendatore and his roughing up of Masetto are particular nasty, but his propensity for random acts of violence doesn’t stop there. Kneeing people where they are not meant to be kneed, putting them in headlocks and attempting to throttle them are simply normal everyday behavior to him. His attempted rape of Zerlina during the festivities at the end of the first Act is rendered all the more reprehensible by his having first rendered her incapable by spiking her drink. There is an air of desperation about this Don, suggesting that, although he won’t admit it, he knows he is a waning force. The revelatory moment comes in one of the most startling set pieces of the show. Instead of being sung to Donna Elvira’s maid, his Act II serenade is delivered introspectively to nobody in particular as he sits slumped against a basin in a grubby bathroom. As he sings, his visible anguish makes it apparent that he is addressing an ideal love he knows he is destined never to experience. The yawning nothingness that surrounds him is almost unbearable, both for him and the audience witnessing it. The final banquet is no opulent, palatial affair but a dispiriting lonely picnic where he is trying too hard to convince himself that he is having fun. When the end finally comes for Giovanni, it is easy to believe that it is a welcome release from a lifestyle that had long since lost its appeal. It is this atmosphere of nihilism that appears to drive Norris’ vision.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I’ll admit that there are a few things that may result in the occasional raising of a puzzled eyebrow. Don Giovanni and Leporello first encounter Donna Elvira lolling about in an industrial washroom; the Commendatore makes several post-mortem appearances wearing what appears to be a bin liner on his head; and, in the Act II sextet, Don Ottavio deals with the shock of discovering that he and his comrades have cornered not the Don, but his servant, by taking off his own shoes and socks (well, you would, wouldn’t you?). The dramatic significance of these moments eluded me completely, I’m afraid.

Musically, in the hands of ENO’s Music Director, Ed Gardner, things were pretty much irreproachable (although the lamentable omission of Don Ottavio’s “Il mio tesoro” from Act II has cost the production at least a quarter of a star.) The unusually brisk tempo he set for the opening slow section of the overture created a real frisson of excitement, and the energy and precision he obtained from the pit for the rest of the evening matched the frenetic activity taking place on stage.

Iain Paterson in the title role is a domineering, swaggering presence, who conveys the nihilism inherent in Norris’ concept with panache and total commitment. A suave singer capable of switching effortlessly between honeyed legato and raucous bravado, his Giovanni is a tour de force. Although a little more vocal heft in the final confrontation with the Commendatore would not have gone amiss, this was as close to a faultless performance as it gets. He is aided and abetted by the fruity-voiced Darren Jeffrey as his put-upon manservant. Jeffrey offers a conventionally sleazy Leporello. However, in keeping with the mores of the time, he aspires to join the ranks of the paparazzi, and we first see him snapping away during his master’s assault on Donna Anna. The reason becomes apparent later during the Catalogue Aria when, in the evening’s funniest moment, he opens his bag and brings out not a book, but a slide projector. The aria is then sung to the accompaniment of a Powerpoint presentation of the statistics relating to Don Giovanni’s conquests, together with a selection of the photographs taken by Leporello of the women concerned.

Katherine Broderick has a bright and substantial soprano with a hint of steel in it. However, Donna Anna has to negotiate some demanding music, and Ms. Broderick, at times, sounded a little over-parted. By the end of “Or sai chi l’onore” she seemed to be flagging audibly, and the coloratura of “Non mi dir” was on the unwieldy side, with some high notes launched more with optimism than expectation. Nevertheless, it is an impressive sound, and these problems will hopefully improve as the run of performances unfolds.

Sarah Redgwick is a very fine Donna Elvira indeed. Not shy of going mano a mano with the Don when it comes to physical violence, she is far more of a handful for him than usual. Vocally outstanding, Ms. Redgwick was as at home in the faux-Handelian fire of “Ah, fuggi il traditor” as in the pathos of “Mi tradì”. She has a good sized lyric soprano, even from top to bottom, that responds easily to everything she asks of it. She is also an excellent comic actress.

John Molloy is a solid Masetto with more voice than one often hears in this role. It is not difficult to imagine him as a future Giovanni. He is partnered by Sarah Tynan as a sexy and sparky Zerlina. Ms. Tynan showed once again what a delightfully watchable performer she is. Her two arias were ravishingly sung.

It is very easy for Don Ottavio to come across as a henpecked wimp, probably because that is exactly what he is. Nevertheless, despite being undermined by the aforementioned removal of his footwear at a moment when a more macho gesture might have been expected, Ben Johnson manages to mine a heroic quality from the character. His voice appears to be getting bigger, and there was plenty of vibrant tone on display. Yet it was the refinement of his melting “Dalla sua pace” that made depriving him of his Act II aria seem all the more egregious.

As the Commendatore, Matthew Best, notwithstanding the black bin liner, was a dignified and imposing corpse. There was something especially horrific about the way in which he died sitting upright on a bench. He stalked Giovanni like Banquo’s ghost and unleashed some truly terrifying sounds as he gatecrashed his victim’s final meal.

Far from disliking this Don Giovanni, I found it highly compelling, both dramatically and musically.  It is undeniably challenging, but I see no reason for the offence that it appears to have caused to some last time it was seen. I understand that some of the more controversial elements of the original production have been either toned down or removed entirely for this revival. I’ve an awful feeling that I’d have liked it even more had they been left as they were.


Steve Silverman

Opera Britannia

Photographs © Richard Hubert Smith

Last Updated ( Sunday, 21 October 2012 21:55 )  

Recent Reviews

Puccini: Tosca

Renée Fleming, our hostess with the mostest at the Metropolitan Opera’s latest cinema relay of Tosca a few weeks ago, urged us – as ever – to experience opera first-hand and to ‘come visit the Met’ or to support your local opera company. The Opera Britannia excursions budget wouldn’t get you as far as York, let alone New York, so my local company it was and performing the same opera too. Tosca is very much the safe, financial bolster to Welsh National Opera’s Tudor trilogy in its autumn season – a crowd-pleaser of a production excavated from 1992, but which seemed even older.


Humperdinck: Hänsel und Gretel

And so to Milton Keynes, pursued by a perishing wind fit to crack the famous concrete cows. The Milton Keynes Theatre, as a venue, is one of the jewels in the ATG crown, big enough to house almost any touring product, with spacious and well-designed auditorium and foyers. Unfortunately it is marooned in one of those soulless retail areas surrounded by a sea of mediocre chain outlets which offer the same tat or that which passes for food in a thousand other identical areas the world over. Whether it was position or the icy blasts which accounted for the poorly populated house is hard to say.


Mozart: The Magic Flute

For all the risk-taking in the operatic world, productions which are guaranteed bums-on-seats bankers are like Nibelung gold. To scrap not one but two such productions is a brave move for English National Opera this season. We shall see what Christopher Alden inflicts on Rigoletto in the spring, replacing Jonathan Miller’s famous Little Italy staging. Meanwhile, Nicholas Hytner’s much loved production of The Magic Flute has finally been laid to rest (after a few ‘absolutely your last chance to see’ revivals), replaced with this new one by Simon McBurney and Complicite.


Shostakovich: The Nose

Described at the time as “an anarchist’s hand grenade,” The Nosewas not well received and soon disappeared from view, although Malko, one of Shostakovich’s teachers at the Conservatoire, recognised the quality of the score. It was composed in 1927-28 and given a concert performance, against Shostakovich’s better judgment, in 1929: “The Nose loses all meaning if it is seen just as a musical composition. For the music springs only from the action...It is clear to me that a concert performance of The Nose will destroy it."



ENO goes widescreen

After resisting the prevailing tide for opera houses beaming their wares to a worldwide cinema audience, English National Opera has seen the light. From 2014, selected productions will be screened at 300 cinemas around the UK and beyond, starting with its revival of David Alden’s production of Peter Grimes, starring Stuart Skelton. A new production, by Terry Gilliam, of Berlioz’s Benvenuto Cellini will also be relayed. Gilliam’s earlier Berlioz adventure, The Damnation of Faust, was broadcast on television.



Poetry Corner

Biography: Mary Robertson is an Emeritus Professor in Neuropsychiatry at University College London and visiting Professor at St George’s Hospital Medical School, London. Aside from being an opera devotee, Mary is a published poet and photographer.

(New poems added: 04/08/2010)

more >>



News updates

Subscribe to Opera Britannia to receive all the latest news and latest reviews

Signup >>

Around the Houses

Dmitri Platanias will sing the title role when the Royal Opera revives its new production of Nabucco. Mariusz Kwiecien will be joined by Saimir Pirgu in Steffen Aarfing's production of Szymanowski's King Roger at Covent Garden in 2015. The Royal Opera will stage Andrea Chenier in 2014/15 with Jonas Kaufmann, Eva-Maria Westbroek and Željko Lucic.

Anna Netrebko is due to sing the role of Lady Macbeth for a single performance at the Bavarian State Opera in June 2014.

Maria Agresta will sing Lucrezia in Verdi's I due Foscari in the 2014-15 season at Covent Garden. Placido Domingo does the Doge double, adding the baritone role of Francesca Foscari to his Simon Boccanegra.

Corinne Winters, fresh from her triumph as Violetta in ENO's production of La traviata, is to return to the Coliseum next season as Teresa in Berlioz's Benvenuto CelliniMichael Spyres sings the title role in a production which sees the return ofTerry Gilliam to the director's seat, after his Damnation of Faust debut.

. Read More>>

"Around the Houses" concentrates on providing the latest news on future plans for opera companies around the globe, artists schedules, cancellations and interesting snippets of information. We will try and avoid unsubstantiated gossip wherever possible, but all of our sources will remain completely confidential.  If you would like to advise us about potential news for this section, then please feel free to email us at

Coming Soon

Reviews to be published shortly:



CD Reviews

Vivaldi: Catone in Utica (Naive)

Although he claimed to have composed around ninety operas, there cannot be many left in the archives of the Biblioteca Nazionale in Turin for Naïve to record in its ongoing Vivaldi Edition if you discount pasticcios, reworkings and incomplete works. Their latest offering, the fourteenth opera in the series, falls into the latter category, for only Acts II and III of Catone in Utica have survived. The opera was written to celebrate the culmination of his third and final season at Verona’s Teatro dell’Accademia Filarmonica – a profitable success for the composer. Premiered in 1737, it is unknown whether Act I was even written by Vivaldi himself, or whether music by other composers was employed.

Read more>>

Recital Reviews

Anne Sofie von Otter: Alumni Series

Milton Court, 23rd November 2013

When this was first drawn to my attention, such is my regard for the Swedish mezzo that I immediately withdrew from reviewing Albert Herring some two hundred yards down the road in the Barbican, and enthusiastically opted for what I thought was an evening of French chansons and mélodies. What a prospect! Anne Sofie von Otter let loose on Chausson and Debussy, Fauré and Poulenc, perhaps some Gounod and Bizet, with maybe a little Délibes and/or Satie by way of let-your-hair-down encore material. All with her long-term musical accompanist Bengt Forsberg summoning up the necessary style. Rapture guaranteed, for which I arrived fully prepared.

Read more>>

DVD Reviews

Donizetti: Lucrezia Borgia (EuroArts)

Scholars now doubt on Lucrezia Borgia’s credentials as mass poisoner, but Donizetti’s operatic treatment on her historical character would have us believe she spiked drinks with cantarella and laced dishes with deadly nightshade like nobody’s business. Lucrezia, here on her fourth marriage (in reality, her third) to Alfonso d’Este, Duke of Ferrara, is reunited with Gennaro, her long-lost son. Unfortunately, she withholds this vital information from him and from her husband, who suspects her of conducting an affair. It’s as free an interpretation as the lusty television series The Borgias, which never got as far as this in Lucrezia’s marital history, but none the worse for that.

Read more>>

Copyright 09 Opera Britannia
facebook twitter