Mozart’s Don Giovanni tends to be all darkness and depravity for modern stage directors, but that’s only half the piece. The other half is comedy. And comedy – sharp, smart and startlingly original – is how it comes in the new Richard Jones production made for ENO.
As usual with Jones, we’re in a world sketched out with something close to cartoon clarity, the characters too stylised to be quite real. Jones’s Giovanni (nicely underplayed by Christopher Purves with calculated calm and velvet singing) is a smoothly suited operator rather than a bodice-ripping Errol Flynn. His Leporello (Clive Bayley) seems to have been modelled on the cocky/charming wide boys played by Michael Caine in 1960s Britflicks. The set – which frames the action into a doll’s house that reduces the vast Coliseum stage to a more manageable size – pays obvious dues to old-school bedroom farce, with lots of doors for people to rush in and out of.
With new answers to familiar questions that the opera raises – about Donna Anna as a willing victim (here, she’s totally complicit, organising her own “rape” as sexual role-play) and about Giovanni going down to hell (he doesn’t: Leporello goes instead, leaving the Don to carry on seducing) – it’s a cleverly engaging piece of work. And with a prize cast, through to the exquisitely observed, malfunctioning relationship between Zerlina (Mary Bevan) and Masetto (Nicholas Crawley) in a marriage destined not to last.
But on the night I saw it, the precision needed for the show to flourish nearly ruptured. There were problems with the set, too many memory lapses and too many times when the ensemble fell apart. It was a bad night for Mark Wigglesworth, conducting with inadequate control. But more than that, the whole thing felt short-changed in preparation. ENO, of course, is facing tough times, cutting back and cutting corners. I suppose this is the consequence.
One of the best new pieces in the Proms this year was Michael Berkeley’s Violin Concerto, written in memory of his late wife. But the concerto grew out of a smaller score for cello and piano, At a Solemn Wake, which featured in the Little Venice Festival: a West London event run by the mixed instrumental Berkeley Ensemble with guest performers.
Here the guests were Adrian Brendel and Christopher Glynn, who played Solemn Wake with magical intensity, tracing its structure out of stillness into a processional tune, swaying slowly like a New Orleans funeral edging along a street to muted jazz. Days later, it still haunts me – destined, I suspect, to be a modern chamber classic.
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