English Touring Opera’s new production of Don Giovanni updates the action to underworld Vienna in the early 1900s, a place of dark, secret tunnels lurking beneath the grandiosity of the city surface. What this meant in practice was that a dark, cell-like set, joined to a mezzanine, with flashes of graffiti-like colour, by an industrial, winding staircase.

George von Bergen (Don Giovanni) and Lucy Hall (Zerlina) © Richard Hubert Smith
George von Bergen (Don Giovanni) and Lucy Hall (Zerlina)
© Richard Hubert Smith

As the opera only had one set, I had hoped to see a more inventive use of the space with these limitations. The staircase was put to frequent use as Don Giovanni and his servant Leporello try to evade the pursuit of the motley group of women and men he has, in turn, infatuated and enraged, but otherwise the staging never came to life. For the most part the mainly monochrome setting had a uniformity which meant it was unobtrusive. It could, however, feel oppressive at times, particularly during the finales to both acts, where I craved more opulence and colour. It also meant there was a lack of contrast between the world of Don Giovanni and that of Masetto and Zerlina, undermining the opera’s messages about class.

Despite the staging, this was a very impressive production, alive with energy. Perhaps the most credit should go to the orchestra which produced an incredibly full-bodied and rich sound, whilst injecting real character in to their playing and overcoming the acoustics of the Hackney Empire. The large ensemble cast of singers was also consistently good and made the most of Jeremy Sam’s English translation, replete with double entendres and anachronistic language. The famous Catalogue aria ,in particular, departed considerably from the original libretto but with a great sense of fun.

The diction throughout was particularly impressive, rendering the surtitles unnecessary for the most part. Bradley Travis’ Masetto and Matthew Stiff’s Leporello gave standout performances with precision, clarity and excellent characterisation. Lucy Hall perfectly captured the subtleties of Zerlina’s naivety and knowing, whilst she is seduced by the Casanova-like Don, she still manages to get husband-to-be, Masetto, back under her spell. 

Ania Jeruc (Donna Elvira), Robyn Lyn Evans (Don Ottavio) and Camilla Roberts (Donna Anna) © Richard Hubert Smith
Ania Jeruc (Donna Elvira), Robyn Lyn Evans (Don Ottavio) and Camilla Roberts (Donna Anna)
© Richard Hubert Smith

The other members of the ensemble, whilst not as impressive, were still convincing. Camilla Roberts' Anna was stretched at times in the higher passages, but she brought a convincing pathos to the role. Her fraught romance with Robyn Lyn Evans' Don Ottavio, lacked the chemistry of Masetto and Zerlina's pairing, but Evans' clear tenor voice shone in his solo arias. Ania Jeruc was a suitably shrill Elvira, although she didn't quite convey her character's secret pining for Don Giovanni.  

George Von Bergen was a commanding Don, ruthless and cavalier, but at the same time charming. However, his voice lacked a little at times, and he delivered the few musical disappointments of the night, particularly in the Champagne Aria, which was taken at an unfeasible speed which became awkward to watch.

Tim Dawkins (Il Commendatore) and George von Bergen (Don Giovanni) © Richard Hubert Smith
Tim Dawkins (Il Commendatore) and George von Bergen (Don Giovanni)
© Richard Hubert Smith

The opera’s famously turbulent finale, during which Don Giovanni is condemned to hell, was also disappointing. The gloomy staging had largely suggested he was there already, and little was done to conjure excitement. What is more, the orchestra immediately launched into the slightly trite sextet that Mozart composed to appease the moralistic Vienna audiences, giving no opportunity for the impact of the miraculous and powerful climax to settle.  

Overall though, the quality of music-making made for an engrossing evening and it was wonderful to see in the programme that this production will be visiting most corners of the country, where it very much deserves to be heard.