Gazzaniga’s Don Giovanni Tenorio – Royal College of Music

Don Giovanni Tenorio – Opera in one Act to a libretto by Giovanni Bertati after Tirso de Molina’s The Trickster of Seville and the Stone Guest [sung in Italian with English surtitles]

Don Giovanni – Marcus Swietlicki
Donna Anna – Beatriz Volante
Donna Elvira – Georgia Melville
Donna Ximena – Jessica Lawley
The Commendatore – David Fraser
Don Ottavio – Sam Harris
Maturina – Henna Mun
Pasquariello – Ross Fettes
Biagio – San Hird
Lanterna – Benedict Munden

Royal College of Music Opera Orchestra
Michael Rosewell

Louise Bakker – Director
Becky-Dee Trevenen – Designer
Joshua Gadsby – Lighting
Alex Gotch – Choreographer

Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers

Reviewed: 22 November, 2023
Venue: Royal College of Music, London

Mozart and da Ponte’s version of the Don Juan legend has become so greatly admired (indeed, for ETA Hoffmann ‘the opera of all operas’) that its fame has eclipsed the fact that the story was frequently treated on the stage before them – quite often in theatres for low comedy, disdained by devotees of more serious opera. Giuseppe Gazzaniga’s version – premiered in February 1787 at Venice’s Teatro San Moisé, which also commissioned Rossini’s early one Act farces a few decades later – was the immediate spur for Mozart and da Ponte in their work. The latter certainly knew and drew upon Giovanni Bertati’s libretto for his own text, though Gazzaniga’s score for his more conventional opera buffa doesn’t appear to have influenced Mozart in his vastly more sophisticated musical setting (the fairly generic style of the genre is one which Mozart had already far transcended by the time of La finta giardiniera 13 years before, making his Don Giovanni so much a richer and more complicated opera as a result, defying categorisation). 

Nevertheless, Gazzaniga’s work is of more than merely passing interest to serious enthusiasts of opera for several reasons. The title role was written for the same singer who went on to create Don Ottavio for Mozart at the premiere of his own setting at Prague in October 1787. The opera became widely popular, with performances all across Europe in the decades immediately after its composition and so would have been at least as well-known as Mozart’s. When da Ponte oversaw a production at London in 1794, he arranged for Mozart’s ‘Catalogue’ aria to be inserted at the relevant point in place of Gazzaniga’s own setting of the infamous list of conquests, and that precedent is adopted by the Royal College of Music here. It’s also not uninteresting that the opera foreshadows the concept of Strauss’s Ariadne in that it is actually the second part of a double bill, where the preceding part, Giovanni Valentini’s Il capriccio drammatico (sadly not given here) concerns the travails of an opera troupe in putting on a production of the drama, and so Don Giovanni Tenorio constitutes their rehearsal of it, or an opera within an opera.

The scenario is very similar to da Ponte’s except that it is simpler and briefer. Gazzaniga’s score (not a great deal over an hour) is filled out here with the addition of some other arias by Salieri, and sinfonias by Gazzaniga and Sarti, which all help to give it more gravitas. Director Louise Bakker also fairly points out that this inclusion ‘has given us the opportunity to explore the plausibility of the contexts of focusing on the other characters more fully’. But even with those additions this production could manage without an interval so as not to break up its dramatic momentum. Given that, the interval comes at the point of maximum chaos which best corresponds to the natural break within a longer opera buffa, here an altercation between Donna Elvira and Maturina (which itself is like a more vicious version of the contretemps between Susanna and Marcellina in Act One of Figaro). The characters are much the same as in Mozart’s opera – Pasquariello is Leporello; Maturina and Biagio take the place of Zerlina and Masetto. The notable differences are that Mozart has no equivalent for Donna Ximena, another of the Don’s conquests; and there is a separate part for a cook (Lanterna – almost fearful as much as exasperated in Benedict Munden’s account here) who complains about life as a servant while he lays out the fateful banquet (at which Pasquariello also eats as a guest) just as Leporello bemoans at the very beginning.

In keeping with Gazzaniga’s music of an essentially mid-18th century galant style typical of opera buffa (which nobody could claim is a masterpiece or breaks any new ground) the production preserves the atmosphere of that era with its characters’ costumes, ironically exemplifying an outwardly genteel society which the Don would subvert. On an otherwise generally abstract set of a few arches or thresholds, and a large downwards curving wall pierced by a door (presumably representing a slippery slope to perdition) there are a few props to create a sense of place, particularly an orange tree to evoke the drama’s Sevillean background. Although the stone guest is faithfully represented as such, the Don is dragged off the stage not by supernatural demons, but by an irate mob of locals.

Marcus Swietlicki gives a calmly assured account of the title role, but Ross Fettes provides a more drolly charismatic centrepiece as the ever-resourceful Pasquariello. Beatriz Volante is a suitably discreet Donna Anna, in a role that is considerably downgraded in significance and extent compared with Mozart’s version, giving way to Georgia Melville’s resolute, commanding Donna Elvira who has two arias in the grand manner of opera seria that Mozart reserves for Donna Anna. (The noble composure of Elvira’s first aria, as she laments the lot of women, also rather evokes the tone and effect of Countess Almaviva’s opening aria.) Henna Mun is sprightly, turning feisty, as Maturina, complementing well Sam Hird as her vociferously-voiced, but still melodious, wronged fiancé Biagio. As the Don’s other object of lust, Donna Ximena, Jessica Lawley is vocally silvery and alluring, poised in character between Maturina and Elvira’s extremes. Sam Harris supports Donna Anna as a tenderly comforting Don Ottavio.

Michael Rosewell conducts the RCM Opera Orchestra in a robust performance that makes the most of the music’s possibilities, particularly giving impetus to Gazzaniga’s not infrequently fluid structure. It doesn’t have Mozart’s symphonic breadth and complexity, and the scene with the statue is essentially comic, lacking the sensationalism (in the best sense) and sublimity of the later masterpiece; the three Salieri insertion arias also tend to be the more striking numbers. But other sections demonstrate a flexible, developmental structure that makes the score more than a mere sequence of predictable, static set pieces. This is a highly worthwhile project, fascinating to serious fans of opera in illuminating the byways of the core repertoire.

Further performances to 25 November

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