A trip to the opera at Garsington in its new, idyllic setting at Wormsley Estate, Buckinghamshire, is a fine treat even in the rain. And with a Don Giovanni production which, despite plenty of oddities, is light-hearted and often witty, an excellent evening of high-class entertainment is guaranteed.

Garsington Opera, Don Giovanni 2012: Grant Doyle (Giovanni), Mary Bevan (Zerlina), Sophie Bevan (Elv © Mike Hoban
Garsington Opera, Don Giovanni 2012: Grant Doyle (Giovanni), Mary Bevan (Zerlina), Sophie Bevan (Elv
© Mike Hoban

The estate’s beautifully designed opera pavilion housed a compact and efficient open-plan set, replete with Macs, iPads and a glossy minimalist feel. There were very few changes of scenery, and so director Daniel Slater had clearly taken great care to make the singers’ movement on stage as varied as possible: the production exuded a sense of motion at all times. While I wasn’t convinced of the necessity to ‘stage’ all the arias – especially with an experienced opera crowd such as this, there’s no real need to force that much extra momentum from the piece – the effort and inventiveness of this production were beyond doubt. There were plenty of great gags as well, from a hilariously deployed printer in Leporello’s ‘Catalogue aria’ to a vigorous tug-of-war between Giovanni and Donna Elvira over Zerlina. The comic acting of Joshua Bloom (Leporello) was a particular delight all evening, and there was a gentle, summery air to most of the proceedings.

But Slater’s vision for Don Giovanni also involves a reinterpretation of the work which throws up a good deal more questions than it answers. During the overture, Giovanni and Donna Anna passionately and consensually flirt over dinner, and soon after, Giovanni only wounds and doesn’t kill Anna’s father, the Commendatore – these are both ‘tweaks’ which run up against flat contradictions in the libretto. But strangest of all is the elevation of Don Ottavio to hero status. Ottavio, Anna’s fiancé, is generally pilloried as a bland and ineffectual character, unable despite good intentions to compete with Giovanni’s charisma and fascination as the male lead – but in this production, he is presented as the mastermind behind the Commendatore’s visit to Giovanni which leads to the rake’s downfall. Ottavio then plays dumb to what’s just happened in the final scene – as the text demands he must – and the overall moral of the piece hence shifts, somewhat bizarrely, from ‘Sinners will be punished’ to ‘Watch out for the quiet ones’.

A further issue in direction is the treatment of Masetto, Zerlina and their friends, whom Mozart and Da Ponte created with copious affection and good will as peasants, but who are recast here as Essex girls, chavs and hoodies. As if that wasn’t enough, Masetto is also made to act on Zerlina’s invitation in her aria ‘Batti, batti o bel Masetto’ to hit her (moments before she sings ‘Ah, I see you don’t have the heart’). Masetto later makes a conspicuous show of regret, but the question remains as to whether this was intended as some sort of comment on the state of society, or whether it was all meant in good humour. Either way, it’s a very big miss.

Callum Thorpe and Mary Bevan played Masetto and Zerlina well, however, and both were in good voice within a generally strong cast. Bevan’s was the female voice which blended best in the ensemble numbers, Natasha Johul’s Donna Anna being overpowering at times – even when singing solo, her voluminous, heavy sound didn’t fit easily with what was generally quite a restrained vocal effort from the other singers. Restraint was the characteristic with which Sophie Bevan impressed most as Donna Elvira: improving rapidly over the course of the first act, she produced some gorgeous quiet tones at climactic points in her arias which suggested confidence as well as talent.

In the title role, Grant Doyle sounded appropriately virile and was a strong stage presence as well as a convincing lead. His serenade ‘Deh vieni alla finestra’ was a highlight, with the most delicate of plucked, mandolin-style orchestral accompaniments miraculously audible above the sound of heavy rain outside. Joshua Bloom was strong vocally as well as dramatically as Leporello, and Jesús León sang Ottavio with enough power that had his character’s transformation been believable at all, I would have believed it. The standout singer, though, was Christophoros Stamboglis, the Commendatore, who made a big impression in Act I and then redeemed the ending from the perplexities of its production with a stone-solid and powerful display.

The Garsington Opera Orchestra were on good form, and while Douglas Boyd’s conducting occasionally bordered on the efficient, he brought out some excellent phrasing from the strings in particular. The orchestral sound was light and sensitive and never overly Romantic.

A mixed production, then, but enough quality to enjoy both visually and musically to make this as special an evening’s entertainment as its stunning setting merits.