If I’m not mistaken, Swedish Radio’s Don Giovanni, streamed last night from an audienceless Berwaldhallen, is the first full scale opera performance since lockdown, which makes it something of a landmark. Conductor Daniel Harding brought together the cream of Swedish bel canto singing for the occasion, augmented by a couple of immigrants: Mari Eriksmoen from nearby Norway as Donna Anna and Harding’s fellow Brit Andrew Staples, who sings Don Ottavio as well as directing the semi-staged production.

Peter Mattei (Don Giovanni), Mari Eriksmoen (Donna Anna)
© Mikael Grönberg | Sveriges Radio

Faced with an empty hall and limited time and resources to prepare, Staples decides to embrace his constraints rather than fight them. Singers move around all parts of the hall at different times: Giovanni can be seen climbing a step ladder attempting to reach the ladies in the gallery above him, Ottavio sits in the audience watching Donna Anna’s diatribe; chorus members are few in number and wear half-masks. Video is at the heart of everything, concentrated on Giovanni’s overwhelming narcissism: the Don is constantly preening himself while Leporello films his exploits; when not engaged in this, the pair are fiddling with various bits of video gear; Anna films everything she sees for the record; all proceedings are shown on a set of six monitors on towers arrayed around the lip of the stage. The video gear, costumes and general aesthetic are from the 1970s (mercifully minus the flared trousers): there are old camcorders and Super 8 cameras, Leporello’s catalogue is a pile of video cassettes that he thrusts into Donna Elvira’s hands; towards the end of the interval, master and servant can be seen playing the classic video game Pong on an old monitor. Crucially, the whole thing is broadcast in chiaroscuro black-and-white, imparting an oppressive darkness to proceedings. Vintage movie footage illuminate the background.

There’s the occasional wryly amusing nod to our Coronavirus times: the masks worn by Anna, Elvira and Ottavio to Giovanni's party look suspiciously like PPE; when Giovanni persuades Leporello to remain in his employment with offers of gold, the substance being handed over is hand sanitiser (it does double duty as Marzemino wine). 

One might fear that the absence of interaction with a live audience and the resulting adrenalin rush might lead singers to give slightly flat performances, particularly as regards acting. Any such fears were dispelled from the start: the whole cast acted out of their skins, with complete commitment both in their voices and on their faces – and there are plenty of close-up shots for us to see this.

And what a cast. Peter Mattei was the perfect rake, flipping between lyrical sweetness in front of the ladies and sneering sarcasm in private. We’ve seen John Lundgren almost exclusively in Strauss and Wagner, so it was a real surprise to hear his absolute mastery of basso buffo as Leporello, exuding tongue-twisting relish. The pair truly inhabited their roles, Lundgren in his way almost as creepy as his evil master. A particularly hilarious moment came when the pair swap clothes and Lundgren imitates Mattei’s voice, while wearing the most appalling toupee. Eriksmoen’s Anna and Malin Byström’s Elvira (the two look disconcertingly similar in monochrome) both gave us voices of sweetness, strength and beautifully weighted Mozartian phrasing. Each had a heartstopping highlight: Eriksomen with “Non mi dir” and Byström with “Mi tradì quell'alma ingrata”. But perhaps the brightest, most appealing voice of all was that of Staples’ Ottavio: his arias “Dalla sua pace” and “Il mio tesoro” were sung with exceptional timbre, poise and heartfelt emotion. 

Perhaps the lighter voices were helped by the format: freed from the need to generate maximum volume to rise above a full orchestra and fill the ears of an audience in distant seats, singers seemed able to give vocal performances of studio recording quality while still clearly involved in the liveness of the performance.

As we drew to a close, the grizzled face of Johan Schinckler’s Commendatore stared at us from a giant video projection, thundering his doom-laden warnings. The confrontation between man and giant was awesome to behold and we needed the closing sextet to calm down: this was one of the most powerful endings to Don Giovanni I’ve seen.

Would I have chosen this monochrome, rather embittered and austere style of staging? In normal times, probably not. But as an interesting, inventive response to the coronavirus-induced restrictions on performance and on life, delivered with very high musical quality, this deserves to be seen.

This performance was reviewed from the video live stream. Unfortunately, there were some severe technical problems with the stream at the beginning of the performance, but these have been resolved and the video replay is working fine at time of writing.