Don Giovanni, Coliseum, ENO, London


Much excitement surrounded the premiere of Rufus Norris’s take on ‘Don Giovanni’. People loved the amoral ambiguity of the scene enacted during the overture in which the Don all but raped an unknown woman, then dressed up in her clothes instead.

In this revival that scene has gone, to be replaced by one in which the Don (Iain Paterson) advances to the footlights, flanked by an army of heavies, and takes possession of a heart-shaped pink helium balloon which has been waiting for him. One senses that as the evening wears on this camp symbol will loom large.

Then comes the attempted rape, but it doesn’t ring true. It’s not clear whether this Donna Anna (Katherine Broderick) wants her assailant to get lost, or whether she wants him to stay and finish the job.

Her father the Commendatore (Matthew Best) comes out to defend her in a natty white suit and gets stabbed, whereupon Donna Anna resolutely turns her back on him and sings us her first big number. He’s bleeding to death, she sings, his face is so pale, there’s no pulse in his veins - but the funny thing is, she discovers all this without even looking at him, let alone touching him. The result is that an aria which should rend our hearts - this woman is watching her father die - leaves us unmoved.

In the course of a programme interview Norris patronisingly concedes that the opera has ‘a narrative that holds up, that has come from the theatre’, but he seems not to have thought about its theatrical implications at all. Nor does he situate it in any recognisable milieu.

At moments we seem to be in Essex, at others in the Balkans, but the characters are certainly refashioned for today: the contrition-aria of Zerlina (Sarah Tynan) knowingly skims S&M in a way which John Molloy’s Masetto is too wimpy to pick up, while Donna Elvira (Sarah Redgwick) seems - in flat contradiction to music and text - a fully-fledged hooker, and Darren Jeffrey’s Leporello is modelled on Frank Gallagher in ‘Shameless’.

For that is the world we are in. Garish and manically over-busy, this production at least brings a commanding performance from Patterson, and fine singing from Tynan, Best, Broderick, and above all Ben Johnson as Don Ottavio; Jeremy Sams’s translation works perfectly. But my God this show is vulgar.