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Don Giovanni by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

at London's Royal Opera House

Two things might prevent you from loving Mozart's opera Don Giovanni. Number one: that it's extremely difficult to watch a piece of theatre that - in most modern productions - seems to pass off a rapist and murderer as a loveable rogue. Number two: that it's at least half an hour too long.

The Royal Opera's revived 2002 production does little to address the first problem. Don Giovanni (Erwin Schrott) – the Italian name for Don Juan - is as charming and attractive as his behaviour is vile. Within the first ten minutes of the opera he has raped a young woman, murdered her father and physically threatened his servant, Leporello (Alex Esposito). The fact that we're encouraged to view him as an individualist, heroic character, laughing rather than shuddering when, say, he claims he can detect women by their scent is the highly problematic legacy of 19th Century Romantic views of the mythic character. The English National Opera was criticised in 2010 for staging a production which controversially included two explicit rape scenes before the Don receives divine retribution. Surely this is more in line, in the sense of its moral message, with what Mozart would have intended than the vast majority of productions (including this one) which choose to play the character as morally ambiguous.

The story depicts the last 24 hours of Don Giovanni's life, in which his past catches up with him in the shape of three women: Donna Anna (Carmela Remigio), the woman he rapes in the opening scene, Donna Elvira (Ruxanda Donose), his jilted former lover on a quest to redeem the lascivious nobleman, and Zerlina, the country bumpkin Don Giovanni attempts to seduce on her wedding day. The plot, though driven along by some of Mozart’s finest music and despite some exciting moments of derring-do, suffers from a general shapelessness which is only tolerable due to the promise of the famously dramatic finale – one of opera’s great pay-offs. The action takes place around and on top of a tall, curving wall set on a revolve, which does a decent job of creating different spaces for the characters to move in with a minimum of changes. The lighting scheme works well too – the gloomily lit action complemented by the dark blues and reds of the costumes and set to create a sultry nocturnal environment. Things occasionally veer a little too close to wackiness though – try watching the finale without thinking of those National Lottery ads from the 90s and you’ll get my point. It’s also hard to avoid drawing comparisons with last year’s Glyndebourne production, whose awarding-winning set was breathtakingly clever and injected Don Giovanni’s descent into Hell with genuine horror and drama. For all the flame-throwers, this somehow eluded the Royal Opera’s production.

Musically though this production doesn’t put a foot wrong. Donose’s Elvira and Esposito’s Leporello are sung superbly, both singers alive to the inherent unhappiness in their characters’ situations. As the Don, Erwin Schrott demonstrates a staggering power to his voice – even in the Gods it could at times be deafening. That’s coupled with a remarkable richness of tone and, as we discover when he strips off in Act II (in case you were tempted to leave in the interval), a chest that more than equals the magnificence of the voice it produces.

It is perhaps unfair to expect this production to overturn two centuries of convention in its depiction of the misogynistic anti-hero, but the fact that it doesn’t makes watching much of the opera an uneasy experience. This uneasiness could, paradoxically, be lessened by a more brutally honest portrayal of his crimes, which seem to be swept under the rug. But if you’re a fan of what is perhaps Mozart’s most difficult opera, this solid production has much to recommend it – and you won’t find one better sung.

***

Words: Simon Heafield
Photo: © ROH 2012 / Mike Hoban

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London

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