Comeuppance cubed

W A Mozart
Glyndebourne Festival Theatre
Drottningholms Slottsteater, Sweden

Review from the Times Literary Supplement, September 3

The saying “don’t just do something, stand there” has been attributed to many, Ronald Reagan and Peter Ustinov (exasperated by a graduate from the Actors’ Studio) among them. It has yet to be attributed to any opera director, which is a shame. Many recent productions are brought close to ruin by the constant busy-ness of soloists, unable to sing because they’ve been made to do something else at the same time.

Hyperactivity of one kind and another threatens to derail Glyndebourne’s new Don Giovanni, directed by Jonathan Kent with the festival’s music director Vladimir Jurowski conducting the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. It starts well, with the pre-curtain chatter cut short by the auditorium’s descent into darkness and the famous D minor opening motif. Even the emergency exit signs are extinguished for a short time, as if to taunt the opera’s dissolute protagonist with the suggestion that, this time, there will be no escape.

Things continue well, too. The work’s first major challenge comes after Leporello’s buffo number, when the confrontation between Donna Anna’s masked seducer and her elderly protector ends with the fatal wounding of the Commendatore. Mozart’s response is masterful: drastically reducing the orchestral texture, he seems to freeze musical time as the wound is inflicted, shrouding in stillness the stunned trio in which the dying Commendatore and his assailants struggle to come to terms with what has just happened.

Many directors flounder at this point, which is difficult because it is at once an absurd accident and the lodestone of the work’s moral compass. It’s the point of origin of the drama (Giovanni is punished because he murders a nobleman, not because he rapes women) and for the comic-tragic faultline that runs through it. In Kent’s version, Giovanni responds to the Commendatore’s repeated challenges by reaching for a stone and bludgeoning him in a frenzy – the blind, unmediated reaction of a violent psychopath who, after a stunned pause, returns to something like normality.

This is a psychologically astute interpretation. It is also entirely of a piece with the designer Paul Brown’s Fellini-esque styling, revealing Mozart and Da Ponte’s “dramma giocoso” opera as a pitiless enquiry into the vacuum at the centre of mere behaviour. If Don Giovanni is Marcello, trapped in a cycle of objectless desire, Leporello, armed with a Polaroid camera and a black book full of snaps, is clearly Paparazzo, too busy to take notice of his own rising self-disgust.

No one could object to the apt and visually seductive setting. But somehow the production’s strengths turn to weaknesses. The pressure on everyone to disclose the opera’s dark heart squeezes out its comic aspect, essential not merely to so much of the music but also to the pacing and balance of the drama. (Jurowski’s decision to use the more rambling version of the opera Mozart prepared for Vienna doesn’t help). Kent wrenches significance and visual stimulus from every twist and turn, the singers are never still, and the stage is thick with activity: in the centre, a giant rotating cube unfolds like a magician’s box and then implodes into a bewildering maze of angles. It looks like a computer modelling programme that’s just crashed.

There is a point to the frenzied dramaturgy: if ever an operatic hero was incapable of stopping doing something, it is Don Giovanni. But dramaturgical insights are not the same as operatic ones, and in Kent’s production it is the music that suffers. Jurowski’s conducting is assured but lacks fire, as if cowed by the spectacle unfolding on stage. Kate Royal seems miscast as Donna Elvira and mild irritation rather than grief seems to be driving Anna Samuil’s Donna Anna. Gerald Finlay, by contrast, is in wonderful vocal form, and his characterisation is completely at one with Kent’s vision; his tone is cold, empty, frighteningly beautiful.

At the Drottningholm, the great Swedish baritone Loa Falkman gives us a very different Don: an aged rake who accepts the statue’s return dinner invitation because he is too old and tired to do otherwise. Everything has been going against him and the world has long since failed to conform to his expectations of it. Even Lars Arvidson’s exhausted Leporello, strangely reminiscent of Charles Addams’s Lurch, has more luck with the ladies.

Drottningholm is a period theatre and so has no recourse to rotating Pandora’s boxes. But it does have exquisitely painted side panels and hand-printed backdrops. For Johanna Garpe’s production, the theatre has provided exquisitely detailed 1780s costumes by Karin Erskine and backdrops featuring contemporary depictions of Swedish landscapes and palaces – Don Giovanni’s noble seat turns out to be the palace of Drottningholm itself. While the eye delights in the detail, and the ear in some lithe playing from Mark Tatlow’s house orchestra, also in costume, the opera itself rejoices in the picturesque artificiality of the staging. Kent’s production errs on the tragic side, whereas Garpe’s leans gaily towards the comic. Kent is almost exclusively concerned with the Don himself, but Garpe emphasizes relationships. Marika Schönberg’s Anna and Magnus Staveland’s superb Ottavio seem, for once, to understand each other. Don Giovanni reveals himself less by what he does than through his interaction with Masetto, Zerlina and Leporello. The shifting social dynamics, which drive the music as much as they drive the plot, are made transparent by the period costumes. Best of all, though, the singers get to stop doing things and just stand there. And when you’re singing, that often helps.

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