Kasper Holten may have departed from the Royal Opera House, but his production of Don Giovanni remains firmly in residence, opening the 2019/2020 season with its third revival since it debuted in 2014. The titular character is in so many ways a blank canvas that can be painted as a piggish, vulgar brute or an elegant, bohemian lover depending on both director and singer. There’s certainly nothing forced about the Don in Holten’s production, here ably supervised by revival director Jack Furness, careering through the evening, every woman he encounters seems inexorably drawn to this charismatic seducer, arching towards him in spite of themselves (and their husbands).

Erwin Schrott (Don Giovanni) © ROH | Mark Douet
Erwin Schrott (Don Giovanni)
© ROH | Mark Douet

Holten’s production has flaws, chief among which is an attempt to overanalyse the psychology of the character which risks destroying Giovanni’s allure and mystique, but at the same time there’s some incisive use of video technology that brings to life the character’s obsessions. The names of women are scrawled in interludes across the backdrop and in the Champagne Aria everything starts spinning in a vortex of broken staircases and illegible handwriting: Don Giovanni moves too fast for his experiences to take form and are left in his memory as simply a blur. The stage is dominated by Es Devlin’s bulky two-storied complex, a construction of doors, stairs and little private room; an effective setting within which Don Giovanni can catch strands of conversations and seduce his prey.

Holten’s emphasis on stains recalls the notion of miasma in ancient tragedy; the dresses of those women within Giovanni’s orbit are flecked with black, and in particular we note the degradation of Donna Anna’s pure pink dress with a cloud of black along the front by the end of the evening. The stains of bedsheets are recalled, and of course the stain of blood, demonstrated in a lively way by the video projection of dripping crimson on to the walls at the death of the Commendatore. Against that, we have the staid dress of the men – Leporello’s dirty white outfit, the black tie of Ottavio and Masetto. Only Don Giovanni himself stands out in an immaculate suit of striking blue, defying the sartorial custom of his peers. At times, the mottled stain on the backdrop recalls the Rorschach test, a deft little touch.

Malin Byström (Donna Anna) and Erwin Schrott (Don Giovanni) © ROH | Mark Douet
Malin Byström (Donna Anna) and Erwin Schrott (Don Giovanni)
© ROH | Mark Douet

More could have been made of the faceless grey figures that loom in the background and the production’s great conceit, Don Giovanni’s hell being trapped alone in black, colourless surroundings, is a bit of a damp squib. His deteriorating mental state in the second half leaves us wondering if this is some kind of breakdown, a not entirely convincing scenario if that is indeed the intention.

This run may need a little burst of whatever the dodgy Don has been drinking; it felt like Hartmut Haenchen was conducting the piece as though it were Wagner. The fundamental fleetness of Mozart’s writing was here leaden and ponderous, which caused a certain heaviness in the stage proceedings. Erwin Schrott gave a superb performance as Don Giovanni, a total and assured blend of musical pedigree and theatrical nuance. There was a sibilance to his diction, a silky smoothness that he drew out as part of his seduction. Even when berating Leporello, the elegance of the voice maintained his part as the debonair aristocrat. Schrott has a powerful bass-baritone which was deployed at full throttle without fatigue across the entire evening, a real pleasure to hear.

<i>Don Giovanni</i> © ROH | Mark Douet
Don Giovanni
© ROH | Mark Douet

Leading the ladies, Malin Byström gave us a commanding Donna Anna, even-toned with well integrated registers. Diction was keen and she projected well, both vocally and in the way in which she presented a character conflicted by lust and duty. Louise Alder also made an impression with her sweet-toned, crystal clear Zerlina, a delight in ‘Batti, batti, o bel Masetto’. Myrtò Papatanasiu, a late stand-in, was a little underpowered as Elvira, lacking that vengeful force of the lover scorned.

Roberto Tagliavini’s Leporello was a tad inert, but robustly sung, revealing warm colours in the lower register. Daniel Behle’s Ottavio was a bit of a stuffed shirt, a neat contrast to his unrestrained rival, but was earnestly sung; a little quiet, but technically good. Leon Košavic was a slimy Masetto, but struggled to make a vocal impact. The redoubtable Brindley Sherratt is ideally suited for the Commendatore and gave a resonant, dignified performance.

***11