Zerlina’s aria “Beat me, beat me”, though often used to demonstrate the power of women over their lovers, can be one of the most chilling moments in Don Giovanni, and in Richard Jones’ new production which opens English National Opera’s season, there are distinct undertones of marital and sexual violence, some consensual, some manifestly not.

Nicholas Crawley (Masetto) and Mary Bevan (Zerlina) © Robert Workman
Nicholas Crawley (Masetto) and Mary Bevan (Zerlina)
© Robert Workman

Jones updates the action to the mid-20th century in a set where doors – quick escapes or the openings to pleasure – are a dominant feature. The concupiscent Don is a stocky, bald lothario, far from being a spring chicken, but who, with craggy features and piercing gaze, has ‘still got it’. The curtain scene has Leporello, bespectacled and in possession of a glorious head of ginger hair, presiding over Giovanni servicing a stream of conquests, and occasionally peering through the keyhole, a voyeur to his master’s libido. The starting gun to the plot is a sex game gone wrong between Donna Anna and Giovanni in a balaclava and holding a knife. Her ‘screams’ interrupt the Commendatore’s session with a prostitute and when he bursts in, he is promptly stabbed. That initial concept works up to a point and gives an interesting colour to the dynamic between the two of them and Don Ottavio; there was a brilliant moment in Anna’s living room while Ottavio was passionately proclaiming his love from a telephone box outside, when Giovanni appeared, taunting her with the balaclava.

Christopher Purves (Don Giovanni) and Caitlin Lynch (Donna Anna) © Robert Workman
Christopher Purves (Don Giovanni) and Caitlin Lynch (Donna Anna)
© Robert Workman

Then there was the brilliant switch of identities between Giovanni and Leporello – the ginger hair is a wig: this character-switch was repeated later in a thrilling twist. Keep an eye out for someone that looks awfully like a younger Leporello. Other enjoyable moments included the party scene in Act I where revellers looked drugged and threw brightly coloured party streamers as Giovanni was being denounced – a rare flash of colour in a set that, apart from crimson-bound books listing his conquests, was dingy and grimy. The irony of the posters put up with the “WANTED” under a mugshot was a delicious little touch.

Christopher Purves infused his smooth baritone with a chilling sense of detachment as the strongman Don – generally avoiding singing loudly, while making himself highly audible with splendid projection. Still, he was slightly hindered by this version of the role; I can imagine him perfectly capable of singing “Là ci darem la mano” with more ardour in another production. Here, though sung mellifluously, his Don sounded less seductive and more like he was ordering dinner – a Casanova who doesn’t need to bother too much because he knows they’ll give in anyway. Clive Bayley was a total hoot as an affable Leporello. His delivery and timing was spot on, while the warmth and power of his bass gave hints of the kind of Don that Bayley might give.

Clive Bayley (Leporello) and Christopher Purves (Don Giovanni) © Robert Workman
Clive Bayley (Leporello) and Christopher Purves (Don Giovanni)
© Robert Workman

Christine Rice had a good evening as Donna Elvira, giving a noble yet pathetic performance as the vengeful Christian unable to get over her desire for Giovanni; it was a clever touch having her hiding in the bed to thwart his seduction of Zerlina. High notes were assured throughout the evening balanced with a cavernous lower register, diction was superb, but it was the searing quality of her acting, including an impressive rawness in the voice, that really made her stand out. Caitlin Lynch was slightly harder to pin down as Donna Anna: vocally, again very strong with a gleam at the top of the voice that served her in a very generous “Non mi dir”, but her Anna was too constrained by the production concept to be much more than a closed book.

Mary Bevan’s Zerlina, last of the female trio, had a younger, more girlish quality to her soprano; not as large as her counterparts, but golden and bright with an easy range. Her diction lacked consistent clarity, but she brought great pathos to the role; a wince when Masetto kissed her suggesting an unhappiness at the wedding, her “Beat me, beat me” full of resignation, rather than charm. She most movingly conjured up an image of a future life of dissatisfaction to a thug to whom she wasn’t suited.

Allan Clayton (Don Ottavio) © Robert Workman
Allan Clayton (Don Ottavio)
© Robert Workman

Allan Clayton as Don Ottavio continues to impress with his honed tenor, a winning mixture of power and deep musical intelligence. Nicholas Crawley’s thuggish Masetto was a little underpowered and took a while to warm up, but had a stronger second half. James Cresswell’s Commendatore struck the right tone of authority and eerie menace.

Mark Wigglesworth drew a visceral, energetic reading from the orchestra; a reminder of what a blow it is for ENO to be losing his talents as music director. This was a production that was almost spot on; I hope it’s tinkered with, because it deserves to be revived.

****1