Don Giovanni at the ENO – 31st May

Don Giovanni

Leporello – Nathan Berg
Donna Anna – Claire Rutter
Don Giovanni – Garry Magee
Commendatore – Phillip Ens
Don Ottavio – Paul Nilon
Donna Elvira – Clare Weston
Zerlina – Linda Richardson
Masetto – Leslie John Flanagan

Chorus and Orchestra of English National Opera conducted by Joseph Swensen

Reviewed by: Duncan Hadfield

Reviewed: 31 May, 2001
Venue: Coliseum, London

What is it about Don Giovanni that sends directors’ brains AWOL? In its last two incarnations at Glyndebourne, Deborah Warner had the Don engaging in some unsavoury frottage with a statue of the Virgin Mary, then Graham Vick decided to stage it on top of a giant dung heap, in a production of Gothic excess. That must seem a bit tame for the Spanish director, Calixto Bieito, who, for ENO, decides to go one better (or worse). Supposedly setting his staging during a raucous weekend in present-day Barcelona, Bieito throws in everything except the kitchen sink in a debauched ’bonk-fest’ – which includes fellatio, urination, coke-snorting and much more – only simulated (alas!), and badly at that.

There’s nothing ostensibly wrong with updating Mozart; it has been intriguingly and wittily achieved by David Freeman for Opera Factory and Tony Britten and his Music Theatre London. Bieito’s interpretation gets it wrong by not engaging with the opera. Even a cursory glance at Lorenzo Da Ponte’s libretto should tell any director that the aristocratic Don is a libertine, a rake even, but not a thug or a rapist; and surely his phenomenal success with the ladies comes from his sophistication, not his out-and-out slobbery as here. When the narrative-thrust of the opera also goes by the board – the Don is not dragged down to hell at the end but stabbed by the other members of the cast – so does much else. Perhaps it was Bieito’s intention to turn Don Giovanni into a pseudo-Reservoir Dogs – if so he could at least have learnt something from Quentin Tarrantino’s grip on dramatic structure, especially as Da Ponte’s libretto is a tightly-organised theatrical vehicle in the first place – as a programme essay by Andrew Steptoe interestingly, though here completely redundantly, explains!

Even sadder is the fact that Bieito’s conception isn’t particularly shocking – simply rather tedious and adolescent. Nor is it thought-through – the cast is far too mature to be Barcelona clubbers, except for Phillip Ens’s strangely matter-of-fact Commendatore who is far too young; and surely they would not be bopping about as if at a 1970s school disco. Rubbish litters the stage throughout, which one likes to think Bieito might eventually realise is an apt metaphor for his shoddy and slapdash production.

With so much frenzied activity for the cast, what suffered most was the quality of their musicianship and the half-cocked delivery of Amanda Holden’s now expletive-augmented translation. As Leporello Nathan Berg comes off best, though one still couldn’t hear much of what he says. Paul Nilon is a reasonable Ottavio but he is given too much silly stage-action. Garry Magee hardly shone in the title role: he adopts an inane, laddish grin, whilst his vocal equipment simply can’t cope with the demands Mozart makes of it, especially the great set-piece arias.

Of the ladies, Clare Weston was an underpowered and shrill Donna Elvira; Linda Richardson makes much of Zerlina’s skittishness – but not much of the music that goes with it. Claire Rutter salvaged something from Donna Anna, despite having to perform in a mini-skirt that seems three sizes too small for her. To be charitable one might say it was probably the production ’values’ that threw all of them in some way.

This debacle was not rescued from the pit – Joseph Swensen conducts a lumpish, unfocussed account of Mozart’s sublime score. It seemed throughout that the orchestra, which sounds splendid in ENO’s current Falstaff, just couldn’t bring itself to concentrate. And to have the on-stage bands absent from the Act I finale – one of the opera’s many great moments – was another big mistake; this resulted in a melee of cacophony and woeful ensemble. Boos and catcalls greeted the director at the end. Did he deserve it? I won’t suggest you judge for yourselves – ignore this travesty and spend the money on a good recording of Don Giovanni instead.

  • Further performances – June 9, 13, 16, 20, 23, 26 & 29; July 2 and 6
  • Box Office: 020 7632 8300 (tel) / 020 7379 1264 (fax)

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