Don Giovanni David Stephenson
Leporello Wyn Pencarreg
Donna Anna Claire Groom
Donna Elvira Sinead Campbell
Zerlina Catriona Clark
Don Ottavio Nicholas Sales
Masetto Daniel Howard
Commendatore Richard Mitham
Bryan Evans (piano & music director)
Wayne Morris – Director
Reviewed by: Richard Nicholson
Reviewed: 6 March, 2007
Venue: Stationers' Hall, London
DIVAOPERA is an adventurous company, dedicated to “bringing small-scale opera productions of the highest standard to unique and intimate settings”. It has produced a wide range of operas and its growing repertoire cannot be limited by the term ‘chamber opera’: Verdi, Puccini and Tchaikovsky jostle with Mozart, Italian bel canto classics and operetta in the company’s inventory of productions. Its identity rests partly on the venues in which the company appears: select continental festivals, exquisite small theatres, ornate rooms in stately homes, French chateaux among them.
Now ten years old, the company thrives, observing high musical standards if the singing in this performance is a reliable guide, though a piano stands in for orchestral forces. The company’s Music Director Bryan Evans performed a tour de force in accompanying non-stop two long acts with ne’er a slip, providing a secure foundation for his singers.
This performance brought the company back to the Stationers’ Hall in the City of London, performing with the audience on three sides of the playing area. Regrettably this was a far from ideal location. The warning signs were evident in the overture: the piano tone was clogging, the individual lines submerged in a disconcertingly reverberant acoustic; indeed, the balance favoured the piano throughout, with disagreeable results which defied all of Evans’s excellent musicianship.
The cast was of a uniformly proficient standard. Master and servant possessed lithe, cleanly focused voices. I was not sure how well-equipped they would be in these roles in a conventional opera house; they came across as light-voiced, agreeably so here. Wyn Pencarreg as Leporello displayed a bass which complemented rather than contrasted too severely with the Kavalierbariton of David Stephenson. The latter was physically athletic and vocally suave, though he could harden his tone to assert his authority in this class-ridden opera. The acting of both was explicit but generally subdued; too extrovert a treatment of these roles would have been out of place in a hall this size. This Giovanni was aggressive only with Masetto, sending him packing under threat and mocking him cruelly in the Act One finale. He could intimidate his servant but also slip into equality when he needed him, as after the murder of the Commendatore or the beginning of Act Two. Nor was the singing in the inflated style which has become associated with the production of this opera in large auditoria: Finch’ han dal vino’ lacked vocal spectacle but Stephenson’s neat delivery was satisfying nevertheless. Richard Mitham was a strong-voiced Commendatore.
The distinctions between the characters were subtly, not crudely conveyed: Claire Groom’s Donna Anna emerged as a doughty fighter from her resistance in the opening scene, while Sinead Campbell’s Donna Elvira avoided caricature, despite a hint of Ugly Sister-ness on her initial appearance. She coped admirably with ‘Mi tradi’ at a fast tempo. Both ladies gave evidence of vocal size beyond that needed in this venue. Dramatically the livelier of the two was Donna Anna. In the scene with Don Ottavio in Act One she declared her recognition of her assailant in a blood-curdling, almost hysterical delivery of the accompanied recitative, grabbing the unfortunate Don Ottavio by the lapels and thrusting a vengeful sword at him. He cowered at this point but gained in courage as the action proceeded, so that by ‘Il mio tesoro’ he was positively decisive. Furthermore, Nicholas Sales had the fluency and the breath to fulfil the vocal demands of that aria; his was a highly competent performance of a difficult role.
The volatile relationship between Zerlina (Catriona Clark) and Masetto was firmly established, though Daniel Howard was rather too prone to grin in schoolboyish fashion. The sexual chemistry between them was explicitly conveyed. Neither let the side down in terms of vocal quality.
Director Wayne Morris, gave us a production free of any post-modern distractions. Costumes were 17th-century. The action was contained around and amidst a collapsible set of metallic railings which could represent the exteriors of buildings when opened or be narrowed to suggest enclosed spaces. I normally deplore the overture being accompanied by stage action, but if the alternative is a rather artificial piano solo… . In this case we witnessed the foreshortened enactment of Don Giovanni’s entry into Donna Anna’s family home and Leporello stretching out to sleep.
The enclosure of all four sides of the central structure provided a space to portray intimate relations: Masetto and Zerlina were getting physical when Don Giovanni discovered them therein, while he later attempted to take Zerlina in the same place.
The greatest challenge for the director with these limited scenic resources was to convey the action of the Act One finale. He had little more than a couple of chairs and a candle-stand but used the central scenic piece symbolically. The significance of the black drapes applied to the railings, later used as bondage, was, however, unclear to me.
Opera in the round is not always audience-friendly. Being seated on the side of the playing area meant that the singers sometimes had their backs to me. The immediacy of the drama was brought home, however, when Don Giovanni egged on the disguised Leporello from over my shoulder!
The blood-red tableau with which the performance ended was striking and justified the decision to omit the epilogue, for how could it be scenically topped (it was also a blow against political correctness, reminding of the Victorian practice of ending with Giovanni’s descent to hell). Otherwise we heard the normal conflation of the Prague and Vienna versions. There were points to criticise: tempos were sometimes excessively fast and had the singers scrambling; there was generally a lack of soft singing (the ‘Trio of the Masks’ lacked magic in this respect); laughter was at a premium in this ‘dramma giocoso’ and the whole thing was just a little too polite. Don Giovanni is an indestructible masterpiece, however, and this production will doubtless be more convincing in a more suitable performance space.