Welsh National Opera – John Caird’s production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni – Duncan Rock, Joshua Bloom, Linda Richardson, Meeta Raval; conducted by Frederick Brown

Don Giovanni – Dramma giocoso in two Acts to a libretto by Lorenzo Da Ponte [sung in Italian with English surtitles]

Don Giovanni – Duncan Rock
Leporello – Joshua Bloom
Donna Anna – Linda Richardson
Don Ottavio – Kenneth Tarver
Donna Elvira – Meeta Raval
Il Commendatore – James Platt
Zerlina – Harriet Eyley
Masetto – James Atkinson

Chorus & Orchestra of Welsh National Opera
Frederick Brown

John Caird – Director
Caroline Chaney – Revival director
John Napier & Yoon Bae – Costume designers
David Hersey – Lighting designer
Kate Flatt – Movement director

Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers

Reviewed: 21 April, 2022
Venue: Birmingham Hippodrome, England

John Caird’s production and John Napier’s design for WNO’s Don Giovanni (first seen in 2011) draws a particularly direct connection between the title character and the fate he meets at the hands of the Commendatore in the form of a marble statue, explicitly made in the title of the play by Tirso de Molina, The Trickster of Seville and the Stone Guest, which serves as the literary source for the Don Juan story. The set is dominated by a façade which incorporates Rodin’s The Gates of Hell, appropriately standing as the threshold towards and through which the libertine is edging ever closer during the course of the drama. In Caird and Napier’s vision of the opera Rodin’s sculpture – with its figures writhing and contorting as they merge into or out of the surrounding ossified structure – also serves as a potent comment on the status of its two central characters as Don Giovanni’s callous actions are dictated by his metaphorical heart of stone, whilst the statuesque form of the Commendatore is in some sense still alive, at least all the while his desire for vengeance remains unfulfilled. Any ambiguity or paradox as to their relations with earthly vitality are resolved once Don Giovanni is dragged away and becomes fully petrified in the moment of his agonising demise amidst the punishing flames within those foreboding gates.

The whole set comprises little more than that façade – complete with prominent copies of Rodin’s two other famous works, The Kiss and The Thinker as ironic visual counterpoints – but its reconfigurations over the course of the performance provide ample scope for slickly dynamic choreography. Above that the night sky continuously presides – and, in the first scene, with an ominously large, but flattened full moon, looking appropriately cold and stony. Rodin’s work also seems to be evoked in the cloaked shape of the Commendatore’s statue, which resembles the famously defiant figure in his Monument to Balzac, albeit that the former is hooded. That monkish form is seamlessly taken over into the dark, bronze-like beings, with hoods drawn more fully over their faces, who step out from the façade (but otherwise remain static) during the ball at the end of Act One, and again with the Commendatore’s arrival at dinner; one of them also plays the mandolin to accompany Don Giovanni’s serenade to Donna Elvira’s maid. Their hauntingly anonymous, crepuscular appearance not only conjures a deathly, supernatural world, but also calls to mind the paintings by Francisco Zurbarán depicting Francis of Assisi, such as those ‘in his tomb’ or ‘in meditation’ – those pictures both miraculously alive and dramatic, as well as also sinisterly and mortally gaunt. Although an Italian saint, the unmistakably Spanish character of those paintings, and therefore that visual analogy, provides an apt allusion to the setting of the drama in Seville, as do the particular forms of the characters’ late-eighteenth-century costumes, notably the dresses of Donna Elvira and Donna Anna. 

The cast is more than merely excellent on the whole, but also audibly and idiomatically underline the concept of this production as realised. Where Duncan Rock maintains a generally unruffled, almost blasé account of the title role as he goes about his escapades, Linda Richardson and Meeta Raval lead the way like Furies in their forceful accounts of Donna Anna and Donna Elvira respectively, seeking to press home their grievances with him and mete out vengeance alongside the other characters, just as the gates of hell also draw closer around him. Richardson sounds the more conventionally stately of the two, but Raval brings to bear a colourful, and fiercely fulsome vibrato which lends her an air of menace like a Queen of the Night. Harriet Eyley is no soubrette as Zerlina, but also turns in a notably hefty account of the role. 

Joshua Bloom’s Leporello conveys good humour and levity but is also vocally resilient and no pushover. Kenneth Tarver is an impressive Don Ottavio with powerful, sincere projection of his feelings for Donna Anna in his two arias, providing striking eloquence, rare points in the drama expressing sincere romantic ardour, as compared with Don Giovanni’s purely exploitative tendencies. James Atkinson and James Platt offer decent accounts of Masetto and the Commendatore respectively. 

Frederick Brown conducts the WNO Orchestra in an urgent account of the music on modern instruments, but with vibrato-less strings, and raw (though not rasping) brass and woodwind sections emphasising some of the painful, agitated or surprising turns in the music. Sometimes that skims over the deeper-felt emotion of some numbers too casually, such as Donna Anna’s ‘Non mi dir’, or dispels some of the terrific tension that should accrue in the scene with the Commendatore in Act Two. Nevertheless there is still a warm aura of string sonority for ‘Dalla sua pace’, and the fortepiano accompaniment to Donna Elvira’s brief aria ‘Ah, fuggi il traditor’ percussively drives home its Baroque formality and sense of righteous outrage. Despite the prevailing sense of gloom and fatefulness, a submerged comic briskness tends to remain (as befits Mozart’s unceasingly spirited and responsive music) not least in the concluding dramaturgical frame in which the moral of the narrative is delivered by Don Giovanni’s victims en famille, as a ‘madrigal’ from their paper scores, providing a dramatic irony to the apparent gravity of what has gone before.  If, for some, such a throwaway coda rather undermines the overall effect, up to the point of Don Giovanni’s demise this production is undoubtedly compelling and tightly-worked as a visual and conceptual unity where, too often, operatic stagings overreach themselves by becoming too complicated and overburdened.

Further performances to May 13 at various locations with alternating casts

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