Director Alessandro Talevi’s imagination, wit and audacity meant that Don Giovanni, which has just launched Opera North’s new season, was a huge success. The production was enthralling throughout, never dragging or disappointing, even in the second act. It works much better than others I have seen, because the emphasis is placed firmly on the comic rather than the pathetic. The balance is just right.
It is in line with what Mozart wanted – he listed it as opera buffa – and it moves quickly across a simple and uncluttered set. We do not know much about its Prague première in 1787, but I am guessing that the atmosphere in that 18th-century theatre would not have been drastically different.
Being controlled and manipulated by sexual desire leads to laughter and delight as well as agony and tragedy. Then as always, and in the case of this opera, it seems far preferable to dwell on the laughter rather than to agonise over such questions as “What’s so funny about rape and murder?” We are as distanced from the Don’s actions as we are from those of Zeus, and generations of psychoanalysts have had field days pondering the mythological aspects and discussing the various significances.
Don Giovanni in a bowler hat and Leporello in a natty straw boater swinging walking canes are practically a music hall turn, with echoes of Laurel and Hardy, and Jeeves and Wooster. Red-curtained picture frames provide opportunities for comic business, close to the proscenium and at the back of the set: when Leporello is presenting the catalogue of his master’s conquests to Donna Elvira, she pops up in a frame to have numerous hats and head-dresses plonked on her head in rapid succession by disembodied hands. Then, after she has come across the seduced bride Zerlina in the Don’s grasp, she drags her offstage using a well-choreographed walking-on-the-spot routine. In the second act, a kind of Punch and Judy show takes place in a frame, with characters’ heads singing above puppet bodies.
At the end of the feast, just before the stone guest’s arrival, the Don handles two pink and wobbling mammary puddings topped with cherries, and the low comedy leads on perfectly to Leporello’s quivering terror and the entrance of the Commendatore; an effective juxtaposition well-known to the scriptwriters of Hammer Films.
No tricorn hats: the costumes indicate a general swing between the 1950s and the 1890s. Donna Anna and Don Ottavio are in Victorian mourning black, and at times Don Giovanni is reminiscent of an early Doctor Who. Teddy boy hairstyles and swing dresses are all the rage at the wedding party, in which the chorus takes part in a brilliant and invigorating homage to the dances of the period.
The singing was magnificent, with no weak links, the acting likewise. William Dazeley, an attractively smooth baritone with excellent diction, was as compelling as Don Giovanni when inviting Zerlina to be his delight as when making his revengeful peasant attackers behave like swine, or refusing to repent at the end. Alastair Miles’ Leporello is really impressive. He is a versatile actor with a voice like dark chocolate, spot-on when it comes to the lowest notes. The award-winning Meeta Raval (Donna Anna), a relative newcomer, proves that she has great things in store for her, and Opera North veteran Elizabeth Atherton gives a terrific portrayal of Donna Elvira, from striking condemnations to moving arias. Christopher Turner, a fine lyric tenor, makes his Opera North debut as Don Ottavio, and Claire Wild is a spirited and charmingly erotic Zerlina who writhes about convincingly on top of Masetto, a superbly resonant Oliver Dunn. Michael Druiett as the Commendatore has remarkable stage presence, exuding authority even as a head poking up through a trapdoor. His voice at the feast sends all the right shivers through the audience – “Don Giovanni! A cenar teco m’invitasti…”
And the Don does not go down into the depths after his encounter with his supernatural guest, but is hauled up into the heights by cables, like a marionette, in a memorable final exit. Days of reckoning and how to deal with our mortality are significant features of this season’s programme – the next in the series is Gounod’s Faust, in which Mephistopheles laughs the loudest.
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