Northern Ireland Opera’s Don Giovanni opened to a sold-out Grand Opera House in Belfast on Friday. The première of Oliver Mears’ farewell production with the company, before he takes up his appointment as Director of Opera at Covent Garden, proved a success that relied on the combined efforts of a strong cast, a beautiful production design, a solid performance by the Ulster Orchestra under Nicholas Chalmers and Mears’ dramatically nuanced and typically witty direction.

This production explores Mozart and Da Ponte’s opera as a world of privilege, reckless abandon, and ultimately downfall – in which all involved are faced with their own moral fallacy and weakness; character traits bundled in the hero of their secret desires and nemesis of their conventional lives: Don Giovanni. The English libretto enhances the understanding of dialogues and recitatives, however during arias, not to speak of ensemble numbers, understanding was difficult and the translation did not flow as well as the Italian original. Throughout the evening, Chalmers balanced the Ulster Orchestra well against the singers, his varied tempi and aspects of period performance commendable. 

Rachel Kelly (Donna Elvira) and Henk Neven (Don Giovanni) © Robert Workman
Rachel Kelly (Donna Elvira) and Henk Neven (Don Giovanni)
© Robert Workman

As the curtain opens the audience is introduced to a harbour scene, the protagonists boarding an ocean liner. The overture’s sinister presence of the Commendatore is visually represented by his statue, being heaved on board as a piece of portentous cargo. The cruise ship is a cleverly chosen setting for a tale on corrupt morals, its confined spaces and division from real world ties providing a backdrop apt to intensify emotional upheaval and challenging established order. Above all, it is a metaphor for the heady excesses of the upper class, which revels in the frivolous entertainment of costume balls, leisurely tennis matches, and drunken pool parties, thoroughly enjoying its communal lack of purpose.

While ultimately resisting the attribution to a specific decade, the attractive stage and costume designs by Anne Marie Woods evoke an aura of elegant dandyism reminiscent of Scott F Fitzgerald accounts of the Jazz Age or even Cole Porter’s Anything Goes, complete with college blazers, gelled hair, intricate Art Deco designs and airy sunlit decks: the perfect playground for Don Giovanni’s libidinous adventures. Amidst the glamour, his antics challenge his acquaintances’ veil of his integrity and the transgressive nature of his scrupulous murder calls into question the very core of human values.

Clive Bayley (The Commendatore) and Henk Neven (Don Giovanni) © Robert Workman
Clive Bayley (The Commendatore) and Henk Neven (Don Giovanni)
© Robert Workman

As a brilliantly funny Leporello, equipped with physical humour in abundance and a luminous baritone, John Molloy was a wonderful partner to his master. He dazzled in his Catalogue Aria and showcased his comic talent in the impersonation scene. Henk Neven impressed as Don Giovanni with a warm baritone and was utterly convincing as a slimy womaniser. Thankfully, Mears shied away from all-too graphic scenes and what would be a one-dimensional reading of Giovanni’s character. While innuendos are plentiful, this staging gives some room to his darker side. Neven’s dramatic variation came to the fore in his serenade, where Neven’s beautiful phrasing – accompanied sensitively by the Ulster Orchestra – imbued his role with a surprising sense of sincerity, effectively mirrored in the intimate gestures exchanged between Giovanni and Donna Elvira's maid.

Moments of introspection and stillness enhance a lively staging. Rachel Kelly as Donna Elvira furiously charges across the stage, her bright and agile mezzo-soprano effectively conveying both drama and private pain. Her rendition of Elvira’s lovesick solo was touching, but unfortunately disturbed by rumbling behind the scenes, which also compromised the bedroom-scene between Don Ottavio (portrayed as wonderfully geeky by tenor Sam Furness) and Donna Anna (Hye-Youn Lee). Lee’s strong soprano is a good fit for the role, her vow for vengeance – clutching a dagger – could be read as a homage to Pamina’s similar scene in The Magic Flute. Aoife Miskelly marvelled as Zerlina (acting opposite baritone Christopher Cull as Masetto), her singing seemingly effortless and crystal clear, while expressive and versatile throughout. Her performance of the sensual “You’ll see my darling” was outstanding, Zerlina's portrayal as pregnant adding a tender meaning to her promise of “something money can’t buy”.

Aoife Miskelly (Zerlina), Henk Neven (Don Giovanni) and Christopher Cull (Masetto) © Robert Workman
Aoife Miskelly (Zerlina), Henk Neven (Don Giovanni) and Christopher Cull (Masetto)
© Robert Workman

In terms of staging, highlights include the costume ball, when Giovanni – dressed as a colonial – assembles a crew of “wild men” and exotic women, fashioning Zerlina as a goddess of fertility at the centre of the frenzy. At the end of Act II, we see Giovanni lounging in a swimming pool, as the Commendatore (sung with aplomb by Clive Bayley) breaks through a panel depicting an iceberg. The effect of horror, so crucial to this opera, is sadly diminished by another of Leporello’s slapstick moments, which distracts from the entrance and its representation in Mozart’s score. At the end, Giovanni is electrocuted as the Commendatore drops a hairdryer into the pool – an effective denouement.

****1