Is Don Giovanni an unstoppable life force, the devil-may-care creature that every man secretly wants to be, if only one had sufficient charisma, wealth and just plain nerve? Or is he a merely a sleazeball, a pathetic loser? If the Royal Opera's programme notes are anything to go by, Kasper Holten believes in a nuanced balance between the two. Christopher Maltman, the Don in this first revival of Holten's production, inclines overwhelmingly towards the sleazeball end.

Christopher Maltman (Don Giovanni) © Bill Cooper | ROH
Christopher Maltman (Don Giovanni)
© Bill Cooper | ROH

Maltman is at his best when casually violent to Leporello or smoothly ingratiating with the ladies, and less convincing when he's supposedly having a good time. In Don Giovanni, the title role gets a stream of set pieces: Maltman threw heart and soul into his duets with the ladies ("Là ci darem la mano" showed his velvety baritone at its finest) and his confrontation with the Commendatore, and the one set piece that didn't quite take off was the Champagne Aria, in spite of the mind-bending lighting effects which accompanied it.

Maltman was surrounded by three ladies with huge voices. Biggest of all was Albina Shagimuratova as Donna Anna, whose soprano is creamily smooth right up to the top of her register. The tone is fabulous, there's flexibility and there's just the right touch of vibrato to colour the notes. As Donna Elvira, Dorothea Röschmann approached the same pure sound quality, and went further in injecting character into the voice: I was completely convinced by Röschmann's well-intentioned but despairing goodness. The role of Zerlina is usually given to a lighter voice, but not here: Russian soprano Julia Lezhneva, making her Covent Garden début, has a voice with more than enough depth and power to match Anna or Elvira. I'm not sure it was ideal casting to bring out the contrasts in character, but it was exciting to listen to and I'm sure we'll see more of Lezhneva in less soubrettish roles.

This production is also the Royal Opera début for conductor Alain Altinoglu, who did a fine job of keeping the music pacy, light and airy and of balancing orchestra with singers. In particular, Altinoglu had the strings nicely under control both in tempi and crispness. Sadly, the same can't be said of the brass, who were rather ragged in the overture, which therefore didn't propel the opera forwards in the way that it should. That was left to the entry of Maltman and Alex Esposito, who must surely by now have lost count of the number of times he's sung Leporello, and probably of the number of directors he's sung the role for. Esposito's acting was rather more restrained than it sometimes is (in the past, I've seen a definite surfeit of ham) and was much the better for it – less of the cheeky chappie and more of the put upon proletarian. Leporello's big number, the catalogue aria, was delivered with relish.

Christopher Maltman, Julia Lezhneva, Rolando Villazón  and Albina Shagimuratova © Bill Cooper | ROH
Christopher Maltman, Julia Lezhneva, Rolando Villazón and Albina Shagimuratova
© Bill Cooper | ROH

Don Ottavio is a tricky role, since its basis is that the man is so ineffectual: house favourite Rolando Villazón made no attempt to convert him into a hero, other than to deliver a crowd-pleasing "Dalla sua pace" – a shade forced in some of the strong high notes, but attractive in timbre none the less. 

In order to deliver the rapid scene shifts and bedroom farce buffo feel of Don Giovanni, most productions rely either on a lot of doors or on rotating walls and staircases. Kasper Holten and set designer Es Devlin go for both, complicated further by a virtuosic series of lighting effects from Bruno Poet which change the mood and character of the room, or project a mass of text to give us Giovanni's mind map, which, unsurprisingly, consists mainly of the names of the women in his black book.

<i>Don Giovanni</i> at the ROH © Bill Cooper | ROH
Don Giovanni at the ROH
© Bill Cooper | ROH

Holten's staging has been described as overly busy, but I disagree: I loved the fact that there was plenty to look at during the linking passages but that the focus was always on the singers during the big numbers. For me, the conceptual ideas resonated well with the inner nature of the opera, such as the fact that Giovanni's house is always populated unobtrusively by the wraiths of his past female victims: the Commendatore isn't the only ghost in this story.

For the ending, in this revival, Holten abandons the rather unsatisfactory "and the moral of the story is" sextet, closing the opera with Giovanni's descent to hell. For an extrovert  like Giovanni, Holten's idea of hell is not a furnace but a dark place where his memories and contact with humanity are gone. It's an intriguing idea, but I'm not sure it's well matched to Mozart's blistering music.