An hour before curtain-up to Don Giovanni, Dutch National Opera and its principal orchestra, the Netherlands Philharmonic, proudly announced chief conductor Marc Albrecht’s contract renewal at both institutions until the 2019/20 season. This première performance by NedPhO’s partner, the Netherlands Chamber Orchestra, confirmed that this continuing three-way alliance is, indeed, very good news. With a sound cast in Claus Guth’s staging, created for the Salzburg Festival, Albrecht did full justice to the dramatic span of the work, from its wry wit to the momentous events that start and end the plot. His choice of tempi was assertive but never extreme, and always consonant with the libretto. In fine fettle, the orchestra played fluidly in the agitated undercurrents and tenderly in the wooing music. Both acts ended in triumphs, but the ballroom scene in Act I was strikingly well-constructed, with sparklingly elegant dances and the trio "Protegga il giusto cielo" really sounding like a hushed, fearful prayer.

Adrian Sâmpetrean (Leporello) and Christopher Maltman (Don Giovanni) © Marco Borggreve
Adrian Sâmpetrean (Leporello) and Christopher Maltman (Don Giovanni)
© Marco Borggreve

As part of the detailed staging, dry recitatives were successfully chopped and stretched to resemble real conversation. Ernst Munneke performed the devilish task of accompanying them skillfully on the fortepiano. This close interaction between stage and pit was perhaps the performance’s greatest boon. Although the cast was strong, completed by the first-rate chorus, only Véronique Gens gave a starry performance, but the team work surpassed individual contributions. As Donna Elvira, Gens pierced the air nervously with her pearly soprano in her entrance aria. By the time she got to her beautifully carved “Mi tradì quell'alma ingrata”, her character had achieved a level of tragic pathos which was missing in the other opera seria figures.

Sally Matthews (Donna Anna) and Juan Francisco Gatell (Don Ottavio) © Marco Borggreve
Sally Matthews (Donna Anna) and Juan Francisco Gatell (Don Ottavio)
© Marco Borggreve
Tenor Juan Francisco Gatell sang both of Don Ottavio’s arias with fantastic ease and style, and tasteful ornamentation. An additional drop of heroic heft would have made his performance complete. On the other hand, his ineffectual, accountant-type Ottavio is even less heroic than usual. Even gadgets give up on him — his phone battery runs out, his car overheats. He eventually gives up trying with his fiancée, who is pathologically obsessed with Giovanni. Sally Matthews was dramatically superb as a chain-smoking Donna Anna, trying to cling to her sanity in vain. Her throaty sound is an acquired taste and some of her phrases had frayed ends, but her delivery was as assured as her acting.

Less than vocally ideal, the peasant couple nevertheless fit neatly into the staging. Iurii Samoilov, more baritone than bass, sounded too light as Masetto, but his callow youthfulness was in high contract to the Don’s experience. While Sabina Puértolas lacked vocal malleability, her instinct for text delivery helped her make her mark as a spirited Zerlina who is a very quick study — she uses the Don’s seduction techniques on Masetto! Mika Kares as the Commendatore moved sparingly and supplied those essential steadfast low notes. Adrian Sâmpetrean’s comely bass was a huge vocal asset. Leporello as an endearing, hyperactive junkie demanded a physically arduous performance from Sâmpetrean, but he sang evenly and smoothly to the end. He has a natural feel for Italian cadence and, with a bit of expressive polish here and there, his Leporello could be outstanding.

Christopher Maltman’s Don Giovanni was a masterful portrayal. Once or twice he wished to go slower than the conductor, but mostly his finished performance blurred the distinction between singing and acting. While his baritone is not the most varicoloured, his Don is seductive in other ways, not least because of the demonic abandon he captures so well.

Christopher Maltman (Don Giovanni) and Mika Kares (The Commendatore) © Marco Borggreve
Christopher Maltman (Don Giovanni) and Mika Kares (The Commendatore)
© Marco Borggreve

In this production, the Don thinks he has killed the Commendatore, who shoots Giovanni in the stomach before he goes off to get patched up. Throughout the opera Don Giovanni is bleeding out in a realistic pine forest set. The Commendatore comes back in time to dig his grave. The forest is a stroke of metaphorical genius: a centuries-old symbol of moral ambiguity, an allegory of the subconscious, a backdrop to the erotic chase (who is hunting whom?). It also works literally, as the hideout of a wounded murderer and his junkie friend. Like Mozart’s opera, Guth’s staging intrigues by inviting different interpretations. Is the Don trying to escape death by pitching his libidinal force against it? Or is he reliving his past as he lies dying? The action could be both real and imaginary. During "Deh, vieni alla finestra", instead of Elvira’s maid, Giovanni, prostrate with pain, serenades an imaginary woman, with caressing mandolin accompaniment. It is a potent melt of music and visuals. The spectacular revolving set plants one right in the middle of life-sized woodland and the dramatic and musical elements enhance each other at every turn. This is opera as total theatre, and it’s pretty marvellous.