By now, Kaspar Holten’s staging of Don Giovanni is a familiar one: it first hit the Covent Garden stage in 2014. You can read our previous reviews for more details than I’ll give here, but here’s an overview: Es Devlin’s set is a massive mechanical structure which transforms from a single wall with many doorways into a complex structure of interlocking rooms and staircases reminiscent of an Escher print; virtuosic video projections by Luke Halls paint the surfaces with endless lists of the names of the Don’s conquests as well as morphing the scenery with trompe-l'œil features. Bruno Poet’s lighting creates an aesthetic that is dark and austere. Long before the Commendatore drags Giovanni to his particularly personal version of hell (a place where the endless narcissist receives no attention), it becomes clear that the joy has been sucked out of his life and that he is going through his seductions almost entirely out of habit, because he knows no other way.

Zuzana Marková (Zerlina), Nicole Chevalier (Donna Elvira) and Erwin Schrott (Don Giovanni)
© ROH | Bill Cooper

It’s a compelling reading and it improves on repeated viewings, because Holten skilfully sidesteps two of the great operatic staging pitfalls. Firstly, he provides a continual stream of visual interest for those who want it while avoiding heavy-handed attempts to distract viewers from singers performing important arias, and secondly, he provides plenty of conceptual food for thought without seeking to provide an all-new narrative that might clash with the libretto. What is less successful – at least in this revival – is the negotiation of Mozart’s idea of a dramma giocoso, a delicate balance between high farce and high drama. It’s difficult to know the extent to which Covid restrictions have hampered stage movement (plenty of contact still seemed permitted), but my sense was that the singers weren’t really throwing themselves into the comedy with abandon and relish.

Erwin Schrott (Don Giovanni) and Adela Zaharia (Donna Anna)
© ROH | Bill Cooper

Covid restrictions certainly didn’t damage the orchestral performance. Don Giovanni is a long opera, but Act 1 went by in a flash as Constantin Trinks gave the clearest of direction to his musicians and kept the momentum going through the sequence of hit numbers – Leporello’s catalogue aria, the duettino “La cà darem la mano”, Ottavio’s “Dalla sua pace”, Giovanni’s Champagne aria, Zerlina’s “Batti, Batti”, to name just five – each one played with poise, verve and a pleasant shape. Trinks demonstrated what we’ve learned over the last year, namely that pared down string numbers can result in great clarity, and there were only rare moments where the balance was off because there weren’t enough strings to compete with some purposeful woodwind and brass.

Gerald Finley (Leporello)
© ROH | Bill Cooper

You couldn’t ask for a more cultured pair of voices than our master and servant pairing of Erwin Schrott and Gerald Finley: both have burnished, smooth bass-baritone voices and effortless Mozartian phrasing which meant that, in purely musical terms, listening to them was a delight. However, Schrott’s comic timing seemed off in recitative – the little delays while he tries to remember the name of the woman he’s talking to held for slightly too long, an occasional hesitancy rather than confident gusto. In terms of comedy, Finley’s Leporello is something of a work in progress: in his role debut, the alternation of cringing and deviousness didn’t come across as natural. But these are two great singers and the chemistry between them improved through the course of this performance. Let’s hope that it keeps doing so during the run.

Nicole Chevalier (Donna Elvira)
© ROH | Bill Cooper

In contrast, Adela Zaharia’s Donna Anna and Frédéric Antoun’s Don Ottavio looked completely comfortable in their roles from the moment they arrived on stage. Zaharia was the pick of the singers, with ardent delivery, clear intelligibility and a voice that made you sit up and listen. Antoun’s tenor has a slightly covered timbre but he injected plenty of emotion and played a full part in moving the action along. Nicole Chevalier (like Zaharia, a frequent star at Komische Oper Berlin) sang Donna Elvira with masses of character and total confidence throughout her range.

I could have hoped for sharper comedy and some more chemistry between characters. But this is an intelligent staging, vocal performances were excellent throughout and the orchestral playing that kept us completely engaged from start to finish. Even with a half-full Covent Garden, it was good to be back.

****1