Mozart’s Don Giovanni is surely opera’s most well-liked villain – it has become increasingly popular to rationalize his rape and murder with the excuse that he is simply a charming, entitled nobleman. Not so in Aniara Amos’ production for the Royal Danish Opera, which portrays him as a seemingly grotesque, cruel figure. Dressed in a fur coat and wearing a long brown wig, this Don Giovanni recalls Attila the Hun more than any sort of elegant aristocrat.

Palle Knudsen (Don Giovanni) © Miklos Szabo
Palle Knudsen (Don Giovanni)
© Miklos Szabo

Despite this intriguing image, Amos’ production was disappointingly bland. The set was comprised of geometric panels that shifted and rotated to suggest the necessary locations. Apart from Giovanni, the other characters donned masks, comically oversized costumes, and fright wigs – a reference to the stylization of commedia dell’arte? A commentary on the ugliness and insincerity of society? It was an intriguing concept and made for some stunning stage images, but the actual direction was nearly non-existent. Even with Don Giovanni's unconventional physical appearance, Amos had very little to say about the character - he is virtually the same charming, charismatic hero as in any other production.

We were fortunate, as a result, to have Palle Knudsen in the title role. His voice is notable for its astonishing range of colour, showed off to dazzling effect in the graveyard scene with Leporello and the Commendatore's statue. His legato singing is absolutely flawless, and his second act serenade, sung sitting on the lap of a rather bemused man in the front row of the audience, would have made anybody swoon. More importantly, Knudsen’s way with the extensive recitatives is masterful – it all sounded as natural as everyday speech, all the while staying true to the rhythms and pitches of the score. It also surely helps that he is a magnetic actor, and can stride around in leather trousers like a model.

The show was almost stolen, though, by Morten Lassenius Kramp’s Masetto, who was every bit Knudsen’s equal in terms of voice and charisma. Not played as the typical country bumpkin, the confrontation between them in Act II was certainly more compelling than usual. It was a shame that his role was so brief, and surely he will be a Don Giovanni to watch for in the future. He was let down, however, by Lea Quortrup’s Zerlina. Though she projected a winning charm, the majority of her voice was too wispy to carry above the already-small orchestra. Though her two arias were pleasantly performed, she was simply inaudible in the recitatives and ensembles.

Peter Lodahl’s Don Ottavio also had issues projecting in his middle register. Shorn of his Act II aria, he nevertheless demonstrated some very fine soft, high singing in “Dalla sua pace”. Lodahl is a fine actor as well, dignified without being uninteresting, and managing to remain imposing even when prancing around in a white gown at Don Giovanni's ball. He had very little to play off, though, against Inger Dam-Jensen’s wooden Donna Anna. Her singing was absolutely beyond reproach – her pearly lyric soprano had both the volume and the coloratura needed in this demanding role, culminating in a flawless “Non mi dir” – but she never projected anything more than vague irritation. In a different production she may have fared better, but here the generalized direction caused the character to fade into the background. As Leporello, bass Henning von Schulman switched confusingly between a college frat boy and Pierrot – despite these odd incongruities in character, he nevertheless interacted wonderfully with Knudsen’s Don Giovanni. His habit of singing from under the note, though, had the unfortunate effect of making him sound flat for a good portion of the opera.

Don Giovanni (Royal Danish Opera) © Miklos Szabo
Don Giovanni (Royal Danish Opera)
© Miklos Szabo

However, the real star of the show was Malin Hartelius’ sizzling Donna Elvira. Stepping in on short notice for the originally announced Ylva Kihlberg, she transcended her purple ballgown and Marge Simpson wig to portray a very real, multifaceted woman. Switching between the comic and tragic aspects of the role with aplomb, she managed to turn Elvira into the emotional centre of the opera. Her soprano is ideally suited to the role, with an impressive lower register and seemingly inexhaustible reserves of breath. Out of everyone in the cast she made the most out of the text, and as a result created the most specific, genuine character.

It has become increasingly fashionable to perform Mozart with period instruments, and in the intimate Royal Danish Theatre must have seemed a natural choice. Concerto Copenhagen, under the direction of harpsichordist Lars Ulrik Mortensen, is primarily known for Baroque, yet was able to produce a satisfying amount of sound for the opera. The string playing tended towards the thin side, but was compensated for by an enthusiastic, mostly accurate, brass section. The period winds, though perhaps less harmonious than their modern counterparts, complemented the voices in an interesting way. Directing from the harpsichord, Mortensen kept the action flowing without pushing the tempo too much.

Even with uneven musical values and a bland production, Don Giovanni can never fail to please – with a top-notch Giovanni and Elvira, it was a highly enjoyable afternoon at the opera indeed.