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S & H Opera Review

Mozart, 'Don Giovanni' Royal Opera House, February 23rd. (ME)


'Sure lends a whole new meaning to the phrase 'The fires of Hell shall consume you' was my reflection on seeing the final image of this production, that of Simon Keenlyside's Don grinning from the inferno and looking as though he were about to eat the naked babe slung across his chest. The descent into Hell, and the sauna - cum - supper scene which preceded it, were done as impressively as any well-heeled opera house can; nice to see my money going up in flames, but I'd really rather have a more interesting production, thanks very much. It's been a while since I've seen one of those in this house, but then that is not much to go by, since the new People's Royal Opera only issues press tickets to chaps (and occasionally chapesses) upon whom they can rely for raves, or at least a modicum of politesse no matter what dreary guff they serve up onstage, and I don't care to spend too much of my own money to watch what are often no more than concert performances in drag. All that being a given, this was a hugely enjoyable evening due to the singing, and, as someone in the loo queue opined, 'You don't come here for productions, do you - you come for the singers.' Well, maybe........

Just what is it that entitles people like Zambello to get away with such non - production? I would love to know, but please don't bother to tell me that it was great because she just let the singers sing; this is opera, and to me opera is about theatre, about the crucial confrontations that occur at certain points in the lives of the protagonists, set against a fully thought through set which evokes many different kinds of emotions and ideas. None of this was present, and I understand that the production was even worse first time around, but lo! the 'Times' critic does not draw attention to how utterly risible it was for there to have been no Commendatore on view in the 'graveyard' scene during the first run, but actually applauds the director for something like 'having the courage to see she'd not got it right first time' and then make amends! So, where are we here? Madame Flutterbye's training school for would-be directors, or one of the world's great lyric theatres? Personally, I have seen better direction onstage at OUDS.

So what was wrong with it? Let's start with the good stuff; that descent into Hell was magic, plenty of smoke & flames, lots of red everywhere, money, money, money - lovely. The three ladies getting together at the moment of Elvira's contemplated suicide worked well, especially given the contrast in size between them, Zerlina being under 5ft tall and Anna around 6ft, but I did keep half expecting them to break into 'Ei ei! Wie fein! Wie fein!' Beyond that, nothing; most of the time, you had the sense that the singers had just been allowed to do their own thing; Don Ottavio, for example, was John Mark Ainsley doing his usual (and very convincing and un-tenorish it is, too) of 'I may be a stuffy nobleman but I'm really randy with it / I may not have done it yet but I sure as hell want to / O, please do just admire my lyrical distress!' However, he has done that at Glyndebourne and at Aix and probably elsewhere too, and in productions that actually made coherent sense and even left you moved at the end by his plight, but here I'm afraid I had to suppress the desire to laugh when the - shall we say - Junoesque form of Christine Goerke's Anna enveloped him in her lap like a luscious Black Widow spider. Chomp!

There was no sense of rapport between the Leporello and Giovanni, for all the Leporello's italianitá, and the peasant / servant chorus were hammy as hell, if you'll forgive the phrase. Everything was stock operatic gesture of the kind one is so familiar with, including plenty of silly stuff in the disguise scene. The Catalogue aria was finely sung, but indifferently acted - 'Voi sapete, quel che fa...' yes, but why don't you give some inkling of what you're going on about? Meanwhile Elvira stamps her feet alongside.

The set is even worse than that of the recent 'Rigoletto,' and that takes some doing. A curved wall dominates, looking like an assemblage of those Perspex cubes used downstairs in the Science Museum, but it is not constant; it moves about, often noisily, and for the ball scene we see its interior, a fantastically amateurish rendition of a sumptuous red ballroom. It is topped with various bits and pieces from time to time, most risibly in that very scene, where the onstage band is made up of what appear to be representatives from the Cleveland, Ohio branch of the Daughters of the Revolution. The worst moment, of many, was the Serenade; whilst the Don was crooning away about coming to the window and so on (she was already there, by the way - or rather, she was perched up atop the wall) what was happening? You've guessed it - that darned wall was sliding around to meet him, so as he reached the sublime final line, it clunked into place for him to lean on. Oh dear, these Sixth Form set designers, Mrs. Alsop - what a lot we need to teach them before the First Night!

And .. er...the singing? Mostly wonderful, especially from the women. Ana Maria Martinez generated so much heat with her Elvira that those flames were barely necessary; this was definitely the best Elvira I've heard since Kiri Te Kanawa, and this one actually looks and acts the part of a tempestuous avenger. Her voice is thrilling; confident and bright on top, buoyant in the middle and with some wonderfully warm low notes, and she phrases the music skilfully, shaping the challenging lines without strain. A star in the making, and I look forward to hearing her in many more roles. The same can also be said of Christine Goerke, making her house debut as Anna; this is another really exciting voice, its warmth and sweetness allied to a thrilling high register, reminding me of Margaret Price in character; what a pity that the staging did not make much of her, and that the tempo of 'Non mi dir' seemed designed to wreck her phrasing. Despina was the delightful Natalie Christie, who did all she could with the part; again, such a shame that she was given nothing to work with at 'Via, via, non e gran male...'

The men were less striking; critics seem to have gone into ecstasy overdrive at the mere presence of a - gasp! - real Italian! as Leporello, but d'Archangelo was another loss to non - direction, as far as I was concerned - he hammed it up for all he was worth but he and Giovanni might have been on different stages. His voice is genuinely beautiful, and so much more might have been made of him - the Catalogue aria was simply boring, vocally and dramatically. Masetto and the Commendatore were reliably and convincingly taken, which leaves the male leads..

John Mark Ainsley has been the lyric tenor who has given me the most unalloyed musical pleasure over the past ten years or so; his utterly convincing, wonderfully mellifluous, floridly decorated Ottavio at Glyndebourne, peerless Orfeo at ENO and elsewhere, and many Bach Evangelists as well as recitals, have set standards that no other tenor has quite come near, but I very much fear that the Royal Opera may have left it a bit late to engage him at his best, since on this showing he seems, at the extraordinarily early age of 38, to be getting past his sell by date. He did begin very young, of course - he must have been around 22 when I first heard him - and has already made something like 100 recordings, but it would be a tremendous loss if this most lovely of English tenor voices were to be in decline, especially as he also possesses such good taste, versatility and musicality, and can do things on stage which so few other lyric tenors can - that is, act convincingly, cut an impressive figure and look good in his costumes. Of course, his problem may just have been a cold, in which case I will presumably hear him in a better state on Thursday night, but there seems to be a loss of some of the bloom at the top of his voice, and although histrionically he did everything he could with minimal direction, making Ottavio seem human and interesting, he was struggling vocally, only getting through 'Il mio Tesoro' by the skin of his teeth and singing 'Dalla sua Pace' with less than his usual confidence, although he did manage to decorate the reprise with a truly Mozartian trill. Someone needs to tell Mackerras that it is now close season on tenor - torturing, too, since 'Dalla sua Pace' was taken at the same kind of crucifying pace of 'Non mi dir,' but in that instance the singer was fit enough to cope with it.

Simon Keenlyside is another favourite of mine; I had heard great things of his Don, and in most aspects, he did not disappoint, although I was certain that this was not his best singing in the role. Like Ainsley, he is a gifted stage actor, graceful in movement and absolutely convincing in demeanour; any woman would be sure to experience a mixture of emotions at the thought of intimacy with this Giovanni, but would be sure to capitulate in the end, despite her reservations. His singing of the serenade was grievously hampered by the - only word for it - stupid staging of the scene, but 'La cì darem' showed him at his best - beguilingly phrased, sing with caressing tone and truly Mozartean musicianship. 'Finch' han dal vino' was solidly rather than excitingly sung, and he needed to summon up every last ounce for his final moments. Nevertheless, this was a striking and beautifully sung assumption of the role from a very fine baritone at the height of his powers.

The singers were warmly received by the usual packed house, as was the conductor, and rightly so; I was not happy with his choice of tempi in two crucial arias, but apart from that, he drew the best playing from the orchestra that I have so far heard from them since the new house opened - lovely mellifluous woodwind, bright string tone, really springy rhythms and some wonderfully caressing support for the singers. Despite my dim view of the production, this standard of playing and the mostly thrilling singing means that I shall now have to give Andreas Scholl a miss on Thursday evening, so as to attend this 'Don Giovanni' once again, and coming from me that's praise indeed.

Melanie Eskenazi

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