A year of theatre refurbishment leaves Scottish Opera with only three and half full productions this season, so the spotlight turned firmly onto this opening production, a performance of Don Giovanni from director Sir Thomas Allen, designer Simon Higlett and lighting designer Mark Jonathan, who have a successful track record with the company. This production sought sponsorship from the public for the various roles, and the costume department excelled themselves with a quite splendid range of outfits.

Sadly, illness has dogged this run so far, and at this performance, Anita Watson replaced Susan Gritton as Donna Anna.

Taking the premise that Casanova may well have inspired the story, Allen chose to set the opera in Venice, home at different times to both Casanova and librettist Da Ponte, and a city from which they were both fugitives. Venice was a party-town of its time, but here was given a wonderfully sinister edge by Higlett in a clever high tenement set, hinged and shifted about into narrow alleyways and canals by strange red masked figures reminiscent of the elusive red-caped dwarf in the film Don’t Look Now. In a blue/grey colour palette, creepily lit with continuous water-dappled waves by Jonathan, it never seemed to really get light, befitting this dark tale of murder, rape and retribution. Occasionally two tall nuns in grey habits with enormous starched white cornette hats would appear and stand stock still, blocking an alleyway and making a haunting image with their faces scarily blacked out.

If there was a slight quibble with the staging, the entire first scene where Donna Anna’s father, the Commendatore was murdered took place behind a gauze which added very little to the atmosphere and created a barrier between the performers and the audience. “Gosh, that’s better” whispered a voice behind me when it was eventually raised.

© James Glossop 2013
© James Glossop 2013

South African Jaques Imbrailo’s lively Don Giovanni in his high collared cream and azure satin brocade coat swished and swaggered through the evening, smoothly pursuing his potential victims and indignant when challenged. He was well paired with Peter Kálmán’s downtrodden Leporello who gave a heartfelt performance with well-judged humour. The nature of Giovanni’s vile deeds was not breezed over yet Allen, who has sung the role often, did rather seem to seek our sympathy for the rogue as his catalogue of conquests lengthened. Lisa Milne as Donna Elvira making a stately entrance off a gondola in a sumptuous gold and red dress intervened just in time to prevent some of Giovanni’s excesses, yet balanced her haughtiness with a desire to change him. Anita Watson as Donna Anna was genuinely chilled when she realised that the man she had just spoken to was her father’s murderer. Both Milne and Watson sang well in their two demanding and key roles.

Ruth Jenkins-Róbertsson’s pure-voiced Zerlina (a double cast part in this run) was a particular delight of the evening. Separated from her understandably irritable bridegroom Masetto, Barnaby Rea in indignant fury, she too falls under the spell of the ever-lustful Giovanni, surviving the party he throws to seduce her only by timely intervention of three white masked characters in huge grey capes and striking matching oversized hats. Donna Anna, Donna Elvira and Don Ottavio turn the tables and in a playful touch, Giovanni escapes from the party in a spectacular coup de théatre reflecting his eventual fate at the end of the evening.

Elsewhere, Ed Lyon as Ottavio sang his two arias splendidly, although his character remained a bit one-dimensional; Jóhann Smári Sævarsson was an authoritative Commendatore, summoning up spirits to cart the protesting Giovanni off to the other place.

In the pit, Speranza Scappucci conducting from the fortepiano produced tuneful playing from the orchestra and it was interesting to hear a different music balance with the woodwind and upper brass out at the front. However tempi were rather slow in a score which should crackle in the right places, the Commendatore’s rising and falling scales in the overture being particularly leaden, and a few ensemble problems too as orchestra and singers drifted dangerously apart on several occasions. There was some nice detail though, with amusing fortepiano flourishes in the recitatives, a lovely cello solo for Zerlina’s 'Batti, batti, o bel Masetto' and the clarinets switching to reedier basset instruments to give other-worldly weight to the Statue’s pronouncements.

This Don Giovanni won the audience over by compelling storytelling, good solid acting, competent singing and a stylish production offering a fresh take on the tale. It was heartening to see an absolutely packed Theatre Royal audience enjoying themselves, and cheering at the end.