English National Opera – Don Giovanni

Don Giovanni – Dramma giocoso in two acts to a libretto by Lorenzo Da Ponte [sung in an English translation by Jeremy Sams with English surtitles]

Don Giovanni – Iain Paterson
Leporello – Brindley Sherratt
Commendatore – Matthew Best
Donna Anna – Katherine Broderick
Don Ottavio – Robert Murray
Donna Elvira – Sarah Redgwick
Masetto – John Molloy
Zerlina – Sarah Tynan

Chorus & Orchestra of English National Opera
Kirill Karabits

Rufus Norris – Director
Ian MacNeil – Set designer
Nicky Gillibrand – Costume designer
Mimi Jordan Sherin – Lighting designer

Reviewed by: Graham Rogers

Reviewed: 6 November, 2010
Venue: The Coliseum, London

Brindley Sherratt as Leporello, Sarah Tynan as Zerlina, Sarah Redgwick as Donna Elvira & John Molloy as Masetto (Don Giovanni, ENO, November 2010). Photograph: Donald CooperThere is always something new to be said about a masterpiece, and Rufus Norris’s production of “Don Giovanni” for English National Opera certainly has plenty of ideas, some of which are pertinent, thought-provoking, and even illuminating. We are not told where Norris has set his version of the story; the vast black-box void of the Coliseum stage is populated sporadically with shabby exteriors and interiors of a Mediterranean-type slum village, evocatively designed by Ian MacNeil. The murdered Commendatore’s body is dumped in a scummy white-tiled communal sink; Donna Elvira lives in a bleak yellow-painted room furnished with a 1970s’ storage-heater. The structures come and go, revolve and merge throughout the opera, often at a bewildering pace, and provide eye-catching frames for the cast: stepping or falling through windows, climbing on roofs, striding through rotating doorways. The constant movement provides strong momentum, and some striking images – such as the sinister labyrinth created for the Act Two sextet.

Other successful moments include Leporello’s ‘catalogue’ aria – or, in this case, “spreadsheet” aria. There was much fun to be had with a slide projection (though a PowerPoint presentation would have been more 21st-century) including graphs, pie-charts and photos of the Don’s women, many of which seemed to have been taken clandestinely. Creepier still were the all-too plausible images of clearly under-age girls. The Don’s mandolin-song was chillingly poignant, sung not to another potential conquest, but in soliloquy to an ever-elusive true-love. This was a rare glimpse into Giovanni’s mind, a lonely and frightening place to be.

Iain Paterson as Don Giovanni (ENO, November 2010). Photograph: Donald Cooper The title-role is crucial to any production of “Don Giovanni”. Iain Paterson sang well enough but, possibly because of the direction, he lacked the vital magnetic charisma the man must have. Norris’s sordid version of Giovanni barely pauses to remove his cigarette from his mouth before bearing down on a woman held to the floor by henchmen. With his chubby girth, shock of long hair dangling over his face, and second-hand red suit and dirty trainers, Paterson resembles a Jonathan Ross that has really let himself go. Why women would be drawn to him is a mystery. Maybe this was Norris’s point but, if so, the reasoning was far from clear.

Brindley Sherratt’s tramp-like Leporello, however, was terrific. Superbly rich-voiced and oozing character, it was Sherratt who drew all the attention. Robert Murray gave as mesmerising rendition as I have heard of Ottavio’s Act One aria, beautiful and passionate (‘Il mio tesoro’ was cut); Matthew Best’s Commendatore, a shadowy, white-suited spectre, was suitably beefy-toned.

Robert Murray as Don Ottavio & Katherine Broderick as Donna Anna (Don Giovanni, ENO, November 2010). Photograph: Donald CooperKatherine Broderick was the pick of the women, her Donna Anna more animated than most, her voice bright and attractive. Sarah Tynan’s self-absorbed Zerlina was an unsympathetic character, but well-sung. Standing in at short notice for the indisposed Rebecca Evans, Sarah Redgwick made an impressive fist of neurotic Elvira, but was sounding strained in her showpiece Act Two aria even before she got badly out with the orchestra. Top marks to all for excellent diction – almost every word of Jeremy Sams’s translation was, for better or worse, clear – and for marvellously fluent coloratura, every note of which was heard without exaggeration.

Kirill Karabits kept things moving at a good pace and maintained a tight grip on the reins, never at the expense of expressive ebb and flow. Ensemble was remarkably taut, particularly in Act One; it started to lapse slightly towards the end of Act Two when the cast were tiring. The orchestra members played well but sounded as though they had been muffled with a layer of cotton wool. Intimate numbers, such as the sublime trio in the Act One finale, came across well but the big dramatic moments, a central part of the score, made no impact. The D minor chords at the start of the Overture went for nothing, especially in contrast to the noisy sound-effects of pulsing electricity which filled the gaps between them. These electric surges, accompanied by fizzing sparks, occur periodically throughout the opera, but the reason behind them is never explained. Eventually, at the end of the tension-less, deeply underwhelming climactic scene, Don Giovanni is electrocuted by a fallen pylon before being pulled through a trap-door in the floor.

Other puzzling aspects of the production include the garish images of Jesus on the hoodies worn by Giovanni’s monster-masked goons (who also doubled as stage-hands), and the silly nervous-twitch dances of the other five members of the Act Two sextet when they realise that they haven’t caught the Don at all, merely Leporello in disguise. Mystifyingly, Ottavio even strips down to his underwear.

Musically strong with a fine cast, the production is only intermittently successful. Though often original and memorable, too many of Norris’s ideas have little or nothing to do with Mozart or Da Ponte and merely left me shrugging my shoulders.

  • Further performances on November 11, 13, 19, 23 & 29 and December 1 at 7.30 p.m., and 27 November at 6.30 p.m.
  • Interview with Iain Paterson
  • ENO
  • The performance on 27 November is broadcast live on BBC Radio 3

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