Opera Up Close – Don Giovanni

Don Giovanni – Opera in two acts [New version, in English, by Robin Norton-Hale based on the original libretto by Lorenzo Da Ponte]

Johnny – Marc Callaghan
Alexander – Tom Stoddart
Anna – Fleur Bray
Elvira – Rosalind Coad
Zerlina – Emily-Jane Thomas
Nathaniel – Marcin Gesla
Octavius – Anthony Flaum
Commendatore – Gerard Delrez

Chorus: Sian Cameron, Louisa Tee, Edward Lee & Spiro Fernando

Robin Norton-Hale – Director
Emily Leather – Music director & piano
Harry Blake – Live electronics
Cherry Truluck – Designer
Phil Hewitt – Lighting designer

Reviewed by: Graham Rogers

Reviewed: 22 August, 2011
Venue: Soho Theatre, London

Updated opera treatments are not unusual these days; English National Opera has led the field for decades now. Those that succeed the best treat the original material with respect – a commodity that is in too little supply in Robin Norton-Hale’s “new version” of Don Giovanni for Opera Up Close.

Brought almost right up to date, and close to home, the well-known tale is set in the “dark underbelly” of pre-credit-crunch London – effectively created by Cherry Truluck’s simple but atmospheric set. The title role is renamed Johnny Sterling, an unscrupulous and hedonistic city trader, played with plausible suave arrogance by Marc Callaghan. At his beck-and-call is his weak-minded “intern” Alexander, a muted portrayal by Tom Stoddart. So far, so reasonable: a story as timeless as this can be safely relocated almost anywhere.

A garish techno-treatment of the Overture, using samples of an orchestral recording, sets the tone. There is, periodically, a return to this 1990s’ soundworld, most effectively as “CD tracks” which replace Mozart’s wind-band in the final scene. But most of the performance is accompanied only by piano, which sounds inevitably underwhelming in contrast to the loud electronics – a situation not helped by Emily Leather’s technically assured but lacklustre playing (and by the piano lid being down in Act One). Following jarring transitions from 20th-century harmonies, Mozart is made to sound like mere chocolate-box prettiness.

Sensitive cuts to recitative, or even the omission of whole arias, are justifiable in the interests of holding the attention of uninitiated audiences. But the brutal truncation of ‘La ci darem’ and the cutting of the Act One finale to ribbons ruin Mozart’s masterfully-crafted music. It would be perverse to claim that this is done in the name of making opera appeal to newcomers: sexy re-dressing is one thing, but the core work has to remain – or what’s the point? Norton-Hale’s re-writing of the libretto is accomplished work, updating it into fluent modern language without sounding contrived. There is little humour in it, however (an essential ingredient of Lorenzo Da Ponte’s original), and her reworking of the story often leads to nonsense being made of Mozart’s finely-nuanced word-setting.

Beneath the trappings is a decently-sung and well-acted performance. The ensemble numbers are particularly impressive – musically tight, well-blended and dramatically delivered. Increasingly aware he’s living on borrowed time, Callaghan’s Johnny has a sympathetic vulnerability. The final show-down with the dead Commendatore (a retired barrister) is compelling drama, although the dénouement unfortunately lacks the chill-factor. One reason is the absence of chorus, stripping the moment of its spine-tingling demonic cries. Despite the mystifying employment of four experienced chorus singers to populate the stage, the production gives them nothing at all to sing.

There is much that works well in Norton-Hale’s concept, including imaginative and fun use of mobile phones, and an evocatively-realised seamy atmosphere. The coherent update has great potential, yet it is hard to see who this will appeal to: not radical enough for real ‘street-cred’ with its piano accompaniment, but with a cavalier attitude to the work that will alienate opera-lovers and those who know the score.

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