It's the most spectacular entrance in opera: the giant stone statue bursts in to join Don Giovanni at the dinner table; a pair of sweeping downward octave swoops in D minor fills the audience (and the hapless Leporello) with terror at the rake's imminent descent into hell.

Kate Lindsey as Zerlina and Erwin Schrott as Don Giovanni © ROH 2012 / Mike Hoban
Kate Lindsey as Zerlina and Erwin Schrott as Don Giovanni
© ROH 2012 / Mike Hoban

OK, that was a spoiler, but then we all know the story: a production of Don Giovanni is all about how you tell it. Last night was the opener for "cast B" in this year's Covent Gaden run of Francesca Zambello's 2002 production, and I found it a distinctly mixed affair, with patches of brilliance interleaved with substantial passages that failed to enthuse.

On its own, Erwin Schrott's performance in the lead role makes this production worth seeing. Schrott mixes his moods wonderfully, veering from violent to suave to seductive, with a display of genuine courage in the face of hell at the end. His voice is so rock solid that you feel he can put maximum effort into the acting in the secure knowledge that the notes are going to come out clear and strong. There's a hilarious moment when Giovanni is explaining how being faithful to one woman can only be achieved at the expense of disappointing all the others: Schrott signs this while creeping off the stage and clambering towards a woman in the nearest box, to the huge merriment of all. Yet even Schrott's performance had a lapse: the champagne aria, Giovanni's most celebrated number, fell rather flat - the fizz taken out by being played evenly and so fast that the melody was rather lost.

Alex Esposito played Giovanni's put-upon servant Leporello with equal enthusiasm, hamming it up to the max. I found it all great fun for the first act or so, although as the evening progressed, the word "overacting" kept coming into my head and the voice was a little disappointing. Leporello's big hit is the "catalogue aria" in which he reels off to Donna Elvira the statistics of his master's conquests (1,003 in Spain). This was staged and acted with great verve and fun, but I didn't hear the strength of sound and agility of diction that such a great basso buffo number deserves. In contrast, Pavol Breslik made more of the role of Don Ottavio than many: Ottavio is often rather a limp character, and Breslik injected a bit of steel and heroism. Carmela Remigio stood out amongst a strong female cast, singing Donna Anna clearly with smooth, effortless phrasing.

Francesca Zambello's staging is arty and minimalist. Costumes are an artistic pastiche of the period rather than an attempt at reproducing it: there's a lot of velvet and coat-tails but no braid or wigs. They're opulent enough, but you don't get to see much of them, since the majority of the production is of the "spotlight a few characters on an otherwise dark stage" variety. The set is based around a high crescent-shaped wall which revolves to reveal different features: a church statue of the Virgin, a fresco of Giovanni's banqueting hall, and others. There's hardly anything else in the way of stage furniture, so the production is relying on stagecraft to set up the illusions, and I found this broadly lacking. I'll give one detailed example: the scene when the Commendatore is lying dead in the darkness and Giovanni asks "Leporello, where are you", with a reply of "I'm here, to my disgrace, where are you". If the two singers are ten feet away from each other on stage with nothing in between, the scene only works with some serious miming of groping around in the dark, and this just didn't happen. And the production has some odd conceits: the Commendatore's stone statue becomes a swinging basket-like structure which may or may not have contained a suit of armour (it was difficult to tell in the dark).

While the vast majority of the singing was of high quality, the orchestral performance, under Constantinos Carydis, often disappointed. The overture, normally a fireball in itself, was terribly downbeat, and much of the music lacked accenting or drive, leaving it to the singers to create all the energy. Yet there were sections in which Carydis picked it up, not least that magical ending. The huge D minor entrance was superbly emphatic, and Don Giovanni's debate with the Commendatore was thrilling. The descent into hell was one area where the staging worked brilliantly, with Schrott bare-torsoed and defiant amidst the flames. Finally, the coda, in which the remaining characters tell us the moral of the tale and what's happening next (Anna to put off her marriage to Ottavio for another interminable year, Elvira to a convent and Zerlina and Masetto home to a nice dinner with friends) was handled with sparkling music and great humour. It made a fine ending, therefore, to an evening that had its imperfections.