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Wednesday 18 January 2012

Don Giovanni at ROH

Final Dress (ticket from a generous friend: you know who you are, Cheers!)

And so in the Royal Opera House's dubiously dubbed "cycles" season, we come to the Mozart/Da Ponte "cycle". It's not a cycle is it, let's just make that clear. Sigh.

It's hard to express to those who haven't had the pleasure of experiencing these three operas quite how extraordinary they are. First and foremost, the quality of the music is just staggering, aria after ensemble after perfect aria pouring from Mozart's pen, covering the full gamut of human emotions, experience and expression. I'll go into why each opera is so special (or at least why I love them so much) when I review each of them in turn, and actually these very differences between the operas is one thing I think is most incredible about them - they each exist so completely within their own world, are so distinct from the others in a way that is just almost without precedent in operas of that or an earlier time. It's hard to imagine any of the arias of Figaro being transplanted into Don Giovanni for instance, or any of Don Giovanni's going into Cosi. That Mozart and Da Ponte play so much with Opera Buffa traditions is very interesting and has been written about at length elsewhere, but maybe the most important thing to remark is how completely these three operas transcend other works in this tradition. To ally the Buffa conventions to characters and situations that we can actually engage with emotionally, makes them seem both more serious and realistic and as a result funnier. No one composes real life more movingly or beautifully.

Don Giovanni was actually the second of these three to be composed and Mozart was trying to replicate the success of Le Nozze Di Figaro. But it is very different in feel. Where Figaro is all perfect elegance, subtle characters with real feelings, the orchestra teeming with a soft hued delicacy and felicitous brilliance more refined than anything he achieved before or after, in Don Giovanni we find Mozart in state of white hot inspiration, with a burning, almost possessed intensity in virtually every phrase that made later artists of the nineteenth century regard it with a sort of fearful awe. Its humour is broader than that of Figaro and the characters and situations more extreme. The orchestra is treated to some of the most opulent and sumptuous orchestrations and harmonies that we find in Mozart's music, and his characterisation in the vocal writing is so striking - particularly in the three central female roles. In Zerlina we find a girlish eroticism and charm, in Donna Elvira hysterical rage and sentimental effusion, in Donna Anna a vengeful seriousness and genuine pathos. Don Ottavio's gentle nobility, Leporello's plodding humour, The Commendatore's extraordinary supernatural authority are also beautifully delineated, and only the eponymous Don remains a sort of musical enigma - as is often remarked he has no really extended arias of his own. What he does have is delicious though and we know that he lives life with the same intensity we feel in all the music of the opera, even although by the time of the opera's beginning it already seems to be the beginning of the end for him.

Dramatically it is almost as complicated as Figaro, but not quite as perfect - some of the comical scenes don't make dramatic sense, but there is less of a sense of realism in every way in this opera, so this seems like caviling. Mozart did his realistic social comedy in Figaro, and he's doing something quite different here.

OK onto this production. What a disappointing presentation of this masterpiece. First the staging. There is absolutely nothing specific about the sets (designed by Maria Björnson with original director Francesco Zambello), they are almost completely without style or historical referent, and it is only through the costumes that we might guess that the setting is 17th century of the original play that this opera is based on. What is the main curving panel meant to represent? The shape of the stage is changed by rotating this panel, but the dark unreal atmosphere never changes, which strikes me as fatal in a piece of such obvious and extreme contrasts. I hate the surreal multicoloured lighting by Paul Pyant too (the same sort of thing that we got treated to in McVicar's Aida last season) which doesn't help things at all.

Revival direction by Duncan Macfarland is nothing special either, nothing particularly interesting or engaging being done with any of the characters beyond what one usually sees. Never did one feel truly involved in any of it. And it was curiously lacking in humour too - Leporello is the key figure here, and in a good production becomes the sort of glue to the piece, though in this case Lorenzo Regazzo seemed too earnest to be funny. He was disappointing vocally too.

Some of the singing at least was excellent. Gerald Finley is one of the finest singers on the stage of course, and he is on good form here, singing with security and beauty as always - its one of the best produced sounds you can hear in opera today. The best singer in this opera needs to be and should be Donna Anna, and so it is here - Hibla Gerzmava may not be the greatest actress but this is an absolutely gorgeous voice, almost always in tune, and she can definitely do the coloratura, even if it's not the most flexible you've ever heard - the weight, control and beauty of the voice more than make up for it. There were some exquisite pianissimos and everything gleamed with an unforced radiance. Another lovely discovery for me. I'd like to hear her sing Rusalka or Tatiana or even maybe Ariadne if she can pronounce the German.

Irini Kyriakidou was Zerlina and the cast's weakest link vocally and dramatically. She didn't have the requisite charm or coquettishness, and the voice is far too squally and mature sounding for such a youthful role. Zerlina's second act aria, Vedrai Carino, is simultaneously scorchingly erotic and a beautifully genuine expression of tenderness when well sung and played, but here was the most boring number of the night. I don't understand why Zerlina's so often so miscast - sexy young soubrettes are ten a penny out of music school, so it should be the easiest role to cast in the opera. Why do so many casting directors get it so wrong? This is just the sort of thing that Danielle de Niese should be doing actually - she made such a strong impression on me last summer - she'd be exceptional here.

Katarina Karneus doesn't have the world's most interesting voice, and it's not exactly pretty either, but at least she "gets" Donna Elvira. And in this production, Donna Elvira seems really badass initially, rather than the simpering weakling that she can sometimes seem. Although she was dressed in a grubby Miss Havisham wedding dress (jilted as she was by the Don), she also had a shotgun slung round her shoulder, and was carried in in a Sedan chair. Her first entrance was the strongest impression she made however. Matthew Polenzani was a magnificent Don Ottavio vocally and he didn't quite seem as pathetic a character as usual - you see his reticence is because he really is a gentleman and a gentle soul and truly loves Donna Anna. The voice is a real pleasure to hear, shining, never strained, and like his noble wife, the messa di voci were fantastic. His breath control was extraordinary and seemed endless at times.

The Royal Opera Hourse orchestra sounded worse than I have ever heard them, Constantinos Carydis drawing the most bland and shoddy playing imaginable, his tempos always irksome. It's amazing to me that music of this quality could sound so prosaic and boring. It's a dress granted, but the transformation that will need to take place between now and the first performance will need to be elemental and complete for it to even approach acceptable.

The last Don Giovanni I saw was at Glyndebourne last summer with a period band (OAE), and it was one of the most extroardinarily intense readings of the score I have ever heard.

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