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.
Photographs © Richard Hubert Smith