Three years ago, John Berry, ENO’s Artistic Director, invited acclaimed theatre director Rufus Norris to reinvent Mozart’s Don Giovanni. Unfortunately, it was not much of a success, and was panned by critics. This year, the production has returned to ENO, with some changes, albeit none that are particularly remarkable.

Don Giovanni: Darren Jeffery, Katherine Broderick, Sarah Tynan, John Molloy, Ben Johnson © Richard Hubert Smith
Don Giovanni: Darren Jeffery, Katherine Broderick, Sarah Tynan, John Molloy, Ben Johnson
© Richard Hubert Smith

ENO’s publicity machine has, this time round, gone on an advertising offensive. Few who live in London can have failed to notice the provocative posters on the underground: an opened condom wrapper, with the double entendre “Don Giovanni. Coming soon.” emblazoned in blood-red type. It was sufficiently shocking to warrant mention in the LA Times. To me, they suggested a sexually charged, feisty production (though I’m not so sure Don Giovanni would have had time for condoms); alas, it was not to be. Whilst there was nothing offensive about the singing, the design and direction of this particular production were unnecessarily confusing and failed to provide a sense of coherence with the storyline.

I must admit that I was initially drawn in by the bright lighting and pink, heart-shaped balloons (let that say nothing about my character) – they gave a very modern feel. The staging, which was revealed after the overture, was also enticing at first: the folding sets being spun around and taken apart by the stagehands to reveal the different scenes, almost like a magic trick. But then, after the umpteenth change, it got rather distracting. I wanted to listen to the singing, but my eyes kept catching the demon-masked stagehands preparing for another set change. Ian MacNeil’s sets and Nicky Gillibrand’s costumes had a hint of the 1970s about them, but by no means was the opera set definitively in one era: in his “Catalogue Aria”, Leporello put on a PowerPoint-style presentation of Don Giovanni’s sexual conquests as women’s faces were projected onto the walls of the set. That in itself was amusing, but it didn't quite gel with the overall production. The costumes seemed to do away with class differentiation, too.

Iain Paterson’s Don Giovanni was less of a convivial charmer than a frightening sexual predator (the rape scene in the first act set the tone, and Leporello’s casting as a Shameless character-cum-paparazzo, constantly snapping away at his master and whichever woman lay under him, perpetuated this idea). His singing, though, was charming, and it seemed as though he was trying hard to reclaim some of the original Don Giovanni’s character from under the production team’s feet. Katherine Broderick (Donna Anna) gave a confident performance, though her coloratura lacked the technical precision with which she executed her other singing. A little loud at times, she balanced well with Ben Johnson’s fine Don Ottavio. Darren Jeffrey made an enjoyable, humorous Leporello, though occasionally his voice was difficult to hear over the orchestra. Humorous, too, was Sarah Redgwick’s neurotic, crazed Donna Elvira, with some good singing and fine acting. Sarah Tynan’s singing made for an ironically classy Zerlina, alongside John Molloy’s somewhat less exciting Masetto. As ever, Edward Gardner brought his customary precision and enthusiasm to the pit, with ENO’s orchestra providing an assured performance.

It is a disappointing result for ENO, who, after the last panning this production received, might have been wise to change the production more radically. The fact that Norris is a theatre producer showed, but so also did a certain insensitivity to the singing and to the storyline of this comic opera. Drawing in a director from outside opera may have its advantages, but on this occasion, it failed to work. There are, though, many laugh-out-loud moments in this production, largely provided by Jeremy Sams’ well-observed English translation of Da Ponte’s libretto, which made it superficially enjoyable; however, it is a disappointing production overall. Perhaps the provocative publicity will draw in the crowds, but that remains to be seen.