Richard Jones’ 2016 production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni has made it to Oslo. A co-production between ENO, Theater Basel and the Norwegian National Opera and Ballet, the production questioned the sexual politics of the piece – not least with a surprising twist ending – yet it often got lost in dramatically inert direction and uninteresting tableaux. Luckily, a tremendous cast and fine conducting from Christopher Moulds kept the action going.

Jones’ Don Giovanni is darkly oppressive, almost claustrophobic, even though glimmers of humour are occasionally allowed through. The sets by Paul Steinberg consists of seemingly never-ending corridors, door upon door lining walls painted a fantastically ugly shade of greenish grey. The walls pull back to reveal yet more doors and walls, and the occasional room. The mood is singularly oppressive, the characters never able to escape. Costumes by Nicky Gillibrand are almost equally dour: crinolines and shiny suits in all black. The only splashes of relative colour are Zerlina’s white wedding dress and Masetto’s brown suit.

The oppressive mood of the sets is heightened by Jones’ and revival director Joe Austin’s static directing, featuring a lot of standing still and attempts at putting the characters in striking positions. Sadly, the tableaux are not interesting enough to warrant attention, resulting in a dramatically lethargic performance, in the first act in particular. An attempt at a horror film-like vibe during the party of the first act finale – party guests dancing in slow motion wearing brown sackcloth masks – was less frightening than it was uneasily boring. 

The primary goal of this production seems to be to question the sexual relationships of the opera – the opening scene becomes less an attempted rape than a roleplaying session gone horribly wrong. Don Giovanni dons a balaclava and pretends to assault a very willing Donna Anna – that is until her father hears the commotion coming from her room, breaks open the door and is subsequently stabbed in the groin by Don Giovanni. The idea of Donna Anna having an affair with Don Giovanni is an interesting one, but Jones does not follow through with the idea, quickly setting Donna Anna back on the revenge path along with Don Ottavio and Donna Elvira. The potential of sexual tension between Leporello and Don Giovanni is also hinted at towards the very end – indeed, it seems to form the basis of Jones’ twist ending – yet the director seems to be unwilling to deal with it in more explicit terms, something that would also help illuminate the ending of the opera.

Heading the cast was Johannes Weisser’s sultry, bordering on lecherous, Don, showing an impressive expressive range throughout the recitatives. The changes to the ending of the opera did take away from him the greatest opportunity for searing intensity, but he still managed to clearly outline a character of nuanced but concentrated sexual prowess. Despite a hugely charismatic stage presence, even within the confines of Jones’ restrictive direction, as Leporello, Jakob Bloch Jespersen’s singing was curiously underwhelming. His voice was surprisingly small and his top register laboured – luckily he got through the recitatives unscathed. Anthony Gregory sounded remarkably at ease as Don Ottavio, with fine passagework during “Il mio tesoro”, although his character was portrayed as little more than the customary wet blanket. Jens-Erik Aasbø was on fine form as the Commendatore, even though Jones’ attempt at an abusive backstory fell flat. As Masetto, Martin Hatlo sounded good, but his eyes were constantly fixed on the conductor.

Donna Anna, Donna Elvira and Zerlina were all well-sung, although the Donna Elvira of Marita Sølberg was nothing less than a force of nature by the time the second act rolled around. While she may not be the most natural actress, there was a truly touching tenderness and beauty of tone to her voice – she may not have been hurling vocal fireballs during “Mi tradi”, but she highlighted the conflicted nature of the character, at the same time as she was sustaining impossibly long phrases. There was more power in Birgitte Christensen’s Donna Anna, with a gleaming, forceful top and impressive agility. Doing “Non mi dir” as a telephone conversation proved a rather dull dramatic choice, but she still sang with heartbreaking conviction. Zerlina might have distinctly less overtly showy music than the others, but Caroline Wettergreen made up for it with a genial stage presence and a beautifully edgy tone.

Jones’ production is not without its flaws, but it presents some interesting beginnings of ideas. Despite some dramatic frustrations, at least in Oslo, the show is saved by some truly outstanding singing.