How much wine can a cast pretend to drink over the course of one production? If such a record has been set Adam Spreadbury-Maher, Ben Cooper and Robin Norton-Hale’s Don Giovanni presents a good challenge. For much of this production characters, music and set seemed drunk on wine and melodrama, high on the drug of their own confident style – but all were ultimately weakened by their instability.

Marc Callahan as Johnny © Opera Up Close
Marc Callahan as Johnny
© Opera Up Close

Robin Norton-Hale’s ‘New Versions’ have so far been notable for their vast cuts, dramatic wit and surprise additions. All three feature in her take on Mozart’s Don Giovanni. Although the libretto is clunkier than The Barber of Sevillle (or Salisbury) or La Boheme, some admirable singing and imaginative set design have made his latest effort a memorable showpiece.  For a start, the size of the Soho Theatre is better suited to OperaUpClose than the King’s Head or Cock Tavern, where even relatively young voices can overwhelm an audience who sit at arms length from the stage. Don Giovanni’s update to the present day (with a few 1950s fashion influences) also succeeds in its tongue-in-cheek humour about everything from women to mobile phones.

With three singers in each main role over a four-and-a-half week run, a complete evaluation of the cast is problematic from just one performance. I can say that on August 22nd it was, appropriately, the Don Juan figure ‘Johnny’ who stole our attention. Marc Callahan was utterly convincing, both vocally and as an actor, as the womanizing ante-hero raping, murdering and guzzling his way to a vengeful death. Callahan and Tom Stoddart as his side-kick Alexander are a dream pair for their vocal strength and charisma.

There was plenty of talent and passion in everyone else’s singing too, despite the chorus coming across as weak. We can forgive Fleur Bray, as Anna, for her lack of control of Mozart’s tricky runs and rather less support in her higher register, but this was a trap into which nearly every singer fell.  Bray gave us a superb acting display, emotionally charged and powerful, making Anthony Flaum seem almost wooden beside her as Octavius.

As an overall production, Don Giovanni is made of hits and misses. There are several elements that could be very strong but are woefully underplayed. The infamous ‘Johnny’ is a rich City type who, the libretto tells us, has made his fortune and is now being served by his faithful and long-suffering intern Alexander. But so vividly three-dimensional are the characters and overwhelming the musical style that the subtleties of the context are lost. For example, Johnny’s surname is Sterling. ‘Johnny Sterling’ lacks the same ring as ‘Don Giovanni!’  when bellowed by the Commendatore’s ghost, but has a haunting ring of significance given the financial crisis that currently haunts our nation. But it is never clear whether the ‘credit crunch’ and its perpetrators’ financial irresponsibility is the allegory used, as it is barely followed through.

The score was most baffling. The overture of the opera was a mish-mash of synthesizer, mix-deck drums and recorded orchestra over speakers. A bit of dubstep here, a bit of arch-Classical there. This orchestral recording, whose quality was (one hopes) deliberately scratchy, hit us like a ton of bricks for the opening of Act 1 and was then mixed up by the sound engineer. This electroni effect recurred infrequently. Why introduce such an intruiging treatment of Mozart for the overture and then revert to voice-and-piano for the majority of the opera?

Perhaps the answer is that, no matter how much one tries to shed truly fresh, modern light on Don Giovanni, chopping the entire opera into a dubstep mix would be received as sacrilege. The audience want the magical lyricism of Mozart’s arias as much as they want something ‘new’. This results in an uncomfortable conundrum for Spreadbury-Maher and Cooper.  True to the composer’s own eccentricity and innovation their production may be, but it is often caught in an identity crisis. Radical, often funny, electronic re-imaginings of Mozart’s score make traditionally declaimed arias sound clichéd, and too often give way to the safe middle-ground of voice and piano. This said, pianist Emily Leather’s accompaniment is near-flawless. And when a synthesizer is used, it is extremely effective, especially to add spook to the Commendatore’s ghost’s voice towards the end of Act 2.

When Johnny had drunk his last glass of wine and strutted through his last vocal flourish, it was the death of a piece of drama in a chameleon-like musical coating. This production is a collage of opera, electronica, piano, occasional comedy mixtapes and intense theatricality, but it still feels as if it is between two minds about whether or not it is possible to completely, or successfully, reinvent Don Giovanni.

***11