After a rollercoaster year of budget cuts and high-profile walkouts, English National Opera’s 2016-17 season opens with this much-heralded new “Don Giovanni” from fêted director Richard Jones.
Oddly enough, given Jones’s 25-year association with the company, this is the first time he’s tackled Mozart at the Coliseum. It’s a notoriously difficult opera to get right, and the general consensus seems to be that the last two versions at ENO fell some way short of the mark, to say the least. A harder act to follow is the more recent revival of Simon McBurney’s highly-regarded version of “The Magic Flute”, previously reviewed on this site.
Christopher Purves, who plays Don Giovanni, says the opera is about “sex, sex – and more sex”. As the overture plays, a catwalk parade of smartly-clad women troop more or less willingly into Don Giovanni’s den, his trusty sidekick Leporello serving as doorkeeper. In the following scene, the libidinous Don and Donna Anna (Caitlin Lynch) indulge in kinky sado-masochistic games, while the Commendatore (James Cresswell) dallies with a hooker in an adjoining room. It’s a cynical world involving power games, voyeurism, impersonal sex and murder, played out in the noirish setting of drab, fluorescent-lit hotel rooms.
Purves himself is excellent in the title role, and if at times he appears to be underplaying somewhat, it’s because neither composer nor librettist give him very much to do, beyond operating as the world’s greatest pick-up artist. As Amanda Holden points out in her useful “Penguin Opera Guide” (she also supplies the witty translation here), he doesn’t have any memorable arias, unless you count the very brief “Fin ch’han dal vino”. Instead, he serves as a foil to the other characters, cruelly exposing their all-too-human shortcomings. Given Purves’s air of chilled menace, it’s definitely a case of And Quiet Flows the Don here.
There’s strong support from Clive Bayley, another old ENO hand, as Leporello, complete with Ronald McDonald wig and Michael Caine glasses. Bayley extracts plenty of black humour from the role (reportedly, Jones gave him a copy of Scorsese’s “King of Comedy” for inspiration). Christine Rice is in impressive form as the jilted Donna Elvira, singing a wonderfully affecting “Mi Tradi”, while American soprano Caitlin Lynch makes a fine ENO debut as Donna Anna. Allan Clayton is outstanding as Don Ottavio, both of his arias earning him richly-deserved whoops of delight on opening night and confirming that he’s currently one of the best tenors around. Mary Bevan (Zerlina) and Nicholas Crawley (Masetto) are also strong. James Cresswell is suitably stentorious as the Commentatore.
Mark Wigglesworth’s conducting seems rather muted in the first act, as if he’s willing to be led from the stage, but he launches into the second act with brio, the ENO Orchestra playing as if it didn’t have a care in the world.
The programme notes talk of ‘enriching ambiguity’, and there’s much to untangle in this dark and often surreal production. Examples of Jones’s stagecraft abound, such as, for example, his use of a telephone kiosk at stage right, from which Don Giovanni launches his seduction of Elvira’s maid and, later, Don Ottavio listens to his betrothed’s protestations of love (“Non mir dir”). Not all of Jones’s ideas work, and the inclusion of a Leporello look-alike (for reasons far too complicated to go into here) must have been utterly baffling to anyone in the audience coming to the opera for the first time. There’s no denying the sheer inventiveness of his approach, however, which culminates in a brilliant coup de théâtre – which I won’t spoil – that is trademark Jones.
Divine music, pitch perfect singing and intelligent direction: for all ENO’s much-publicised woes of late, creatively, at least, you might be forgiven for asking: Crisis? What crisis?