Of the three ‘great’ Mozart operas – Figaro, Flute and Don Giovanni – it is the third that tends to be most at risk from adventurous stage directors, who seek to plumb the depths of the seducer’s psychology and expose this in an array of comic, tragic, tragi-comic and post-ironic stagings, with productions that veer from the quaint to the border of perverse. While these are often thought-provoking and can offer new insights into the work, Classical Opera’s concert-performance at the Cadogan Hall was a welcome relief from director-led Mozart. It was by no means lacking in dynamism and acting, being a masterclass in how to do a concert performance – and do it well. Virtually every member of the cast knew their role extremely well, with none of that all too frequent problem of having noses buried in scores. This confidence was generally reflected in the quality of singing and in the interactions between cast members, who regularly veered away from their stands in order to seduce, amuse or educate.
Taking the role of Leporello was redoubtable David Soar, who recently seems to have become the go-to bass for concert opera. I must have underestimated capacity for comedy (he was a splendidly ferocious Friedrich in Chelsea Opera Group’s Das Liebesverbot last year), because he delivered a tour de force. For sheer quality of acting in a non-staged performance, he was superlative: eyebrow twitches, a slightly shambling gait and a moment where he draped himself over his music stand in sheer fatigue at his master’s appetites. As for the voice, its natural authoritative quality was occasionally at odds with the character, but the hefty richness is a real treat to listen to. In the famous “Catalogue” aria, Soar delivered patter singing that was perfectly judged, losing neither speed nor volume. Every word was articulated and coloured with careful consideration of comic impact.
I was slightly underwhelmed by Jacques Imbrailo’s assumption of the title role. For much of the first act, it felt like he was holding back, lacking a spark of inspiration. At times, he struggled to rise above the orchestra and I was slightly concerned about the top of the voice, where at one point it seemed dangerously close to cracking. He was at his best in seductive mode; his pursuit of Zerlina in “Là ci darem la mano” had a lingering, almost dangerous quality that brought the character to life. Imbrailo returned renewed to the second act and he really shone in the damnation scene, projecting well and bringing a frantic quality appropriate to the scene. His portrayal of the Don suggested a bored, but bold pleasure-seeker, dodging and ducking from encounter to encounter, where Imbrailo regularly deployed a wonderfully enigmatic smirk that was both enticing and repelling.
Our Donna Anna was sung by Ana Maria Labin, who has an expressive, coloured voice with a very easy top. She showed an inherent musicality that easily combined technical ability with genuine pathos borne of a total assumption of the role. At the high end of the voice, there was absolute precision with no shrillness, and her “Non mi dir”, Donna Anna’s crowning moment, was dispatched with excellent coloratura. Helen Sherman sang Elvira with classical excellence; she has a large, but nimble, mezzo with plenty of dramatic tone and that clean austerity of proto-Classical singing. Ellie Laugharne’s sparky Zerlina was a match for Giovanni with playful gestures and not so subtle grins; she sang with a small, but clear voice, showing a tender approach to phrasing.
Stuart Jackson’s Don Ottavio was intriguing; initially he presented as too timid and gentle to be a genuine force on the platform, but rather unexpectedly, he delivered a superb “Il mio tesoro intanto” with a silky, pale tenor that had excellent range and smooth lines. Alone, or in duets, he made a strong impression, but he suffered slightly in ensemble moments. Donna Anna was definitely wearing the trousers in their relationship. Our Commendatore, David Shipley, sang articulately, but his bass lacked the gravitas that lends the role sympathy in its earthly incarnation and awe in its celestial form.
The orchestra started as it meant to go on with a perfectly paced overture that veered between urgency and whimsy, while the period-instruments contributed an earthy sound that is not commonly heard in the work. Particularly impressive was Pawel Siwczak on the harpsichord, whose contributions were vibrant and alive to the contours of Mozart’s writing. What a fine note on which to conclude Classical Opera’s season!
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