The Rake punished, or Don Giovanni was rapturously received in Prague 1787, the Provinzial Nachrichten of Vienna reporting that “Herr Mozart conducted in person and was welcomed joyously and jubilantly by the numerous gathering”. Yet given the validity of sexual politics and persistence of gender inequality – it’s harder to jubel like that today.

Don Giovanni’s story revolves around an indulgent and licentious Italian noble’s deceit and callousness towards women. And around this rake, whose megalomania knows no limits, the female figures are largely portrayed as either gullible, devious, or scatter-brained. The work Mozart designated as opera buffa, was billed as dramma giocoso by his librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte, connoting a mix of comic and serious action. None of us in Basel expected profound psychological insights, but acknowledged it was the music’s job to carry the evening convincingly.

Yet with this demanding Mozart score, the Sinfonieorchester Basel played less colourfully than usual. Admittedly, a three-hour-plus service is a gruelling task, but conductor Erik Nielsen seemed unable to light much fire under the players. There were exceptions – the fortepiano in Act 1, the mandolin solo at the end of Act 2, for example – but overall, there were repeated instances where Mozart’s effervescence and extraordinary sparkle were hard to come by.  

Richard Jones' production is fairly two-dimensional. Welcoming the audience taking its seats, a huge word on the stage curtain WANTED runs under an image of Don Giovanni’s head. As it rises, an aloof Don waits downstage with his servant, Leporello, while a stream of nervous, but determined women in all shapes and sizes parades past them. One after the other, they each disappear through a doorway to take advantage of the Don’s fail-proof services. Here is the man who is wanted by the authorities, perhaps on a criminal charge, but at the same time, wanted by a host of women who lust after his sexuality. He takes on the women like clockwork.

Throughout the opera, the door remained the set’s central motif − anywhere between six and ten of them appearing around the stage perimeter. While the “in-and-out” reference to the Don’s unique endowment did not go unnoticed, the many framed doors and beige walls made for a fairly lifeless set (Paul Steinberg). Rather than reflecting anything noble, the other props, too, were limited to second-hand beds and side-sliding interiors that were basic at best. One 1950s-like lamppost centre stage also trembled unconvincingly when a character swiped past it.

Fortunately, the principals made up for these misgivings. While there is little merit in a character who sings “I smell a woman”, Riccardo Fassi was superbly cast as the Don. His portrayal of a hedonistic, egotistical and ruthless rake would be impossible to top, and given the character’s cocky self-assurance, you just had to love hating him. Even better, Fassi’s voice was unwaveringly strong, allowing him a stage presence that perfectly fit the part of a cocky, self-assured brute. The Don’s loyal servant, Leporello (Biagio Pizzuti) – complete with unisex shoulder bag and bold-rimmed black glasses − was modelled on the inveterate corporate PA who leaves his scruples behind to buck up his master’s. Pizzuti’s voice was also superb, and the singer brought terrific humour into his lines. While the Commendatore was close to a cameo role, Michael Hauenstein gave it weight and conviction, despite having to stand around in his bloodied skivvies after his on-stage murder. As Don Ottavio, Simon Bode wavered a little in his first aria, but ultimately gave a handsome performance in what, as the nice guy, is perhaps the most pedestrian of the opera’s roles. Finally, peasant Masetto (Nicholas Crawley) made his great pain palpable when his new bride, Zerlina, dashed his integrity and compromised his honour.

Among the female roles, Maren Favela was perfect as that Zerlina; her efforts to dispel Masetto’s jealousy showed the finest mix of the genuine and devious. As Donna Anna, and despite her pompous costume early on, Kiandra Howarth shook the hall with her resonant soprano, and fortunately, was dressed down from extravagant to more simple clothing as the opera progressed. In her role as the dumped Donna Elvira, who believed she had “paid the price for loving (the Don) so much”, Anna Rajah frequently used exaggerated grimaces, yet the soprano tackled the gullible character’s confusion with aplomb, nailing her arias’ demanding intricacies capably.

One freely invented character, Donna Elvira's maid (Mirjam Karat), also pined after the Don. In Richard Jones' inventive rendition, predictably, she joins him behind closed doors just before the curtain falls. Even more at odds with the original is that Don Giovanni − in defeating the Fates by disguise − is spared death, albeit at the expense of those closest to him. 

The singers made a convincing case for Mozart, despite Jones' drab staging, even though their characters’ practice − or acceptance − of bad behaviour clearly grappled with modern convention.