Don Giovanni, Coliseum, London<br/>Spira Mirabilis, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

In his opera debut, director Rufus Norris offers a lothario implausibly making up for lost love with serial affairs
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The Independent Culture

Of the dozen or so most-performed operas, Don Giovanni is the hardest nut to crack.

Here is a work of high seriousness and low humour, whose anti-hero is the man all men might want to be for a night, and the man all women might hope to change. This much is plausible in a contemporary context. But while our fascination with libertines is undimmed, belief in supernatural retribution has all but disappeared. For Calixto Bieito, whose nihilistic Don was damned from the first gasp of Mozart's overture, Hell was a multiple stabbing on a tawdry sofa. For Rufus Norris, whose debut staging for English National Opera replaces Bieito's production, it is electrocution on a high-voltage, abstract crown of thorns.

Norris exploits the Coliseum's deep stage, creating a tumbling farce of forced entries and emergency exits as masked actors propel wheeled components of Ian MacNeil's set into the paths of the singers. The neon-lit shrine, wrestling masks and faded plastic curtains suggest a Latin American location for the Don's Day of the Dead. There are moments of cuteness (a boxing glove is presented to Masetto on a silver salver during "Batti, batti") and absurdity (in the Act II sextet, Donna Anna breaks into an Irish jig while Don Ottavio strips down to his boxer shorts), which could be read as a sign of impatience with the material. Meanwhile, Jeremy Sams's all-puns-intended translation forces us to laugh at a rapist and murderer's "spreadsheet" of sexual conquests in a freewheeling spin on the catalogue aria.

The comedy of Mozart's dramma giocoso is well served, a guilty, involuntary pleasure. But the terror promised by the Commendatore's amplified death rattle and the hot veins of electricity that crackle above is never fully realised. Like Bieito, Norris has dispensed with class structure, but instead of celebrating or condemning the Don's singularity, he tries to mitigate it. "Deh vieni alla finestra" makes reference to a lost love, as though the multiple erotic adventures were an attempt to recapture a romantic ideal. I don't buy this. And for all the melancholy suavity of his singing in this aria, Iain Paterson doesn't project the requisite carnality to incite lust or envy. Instead, it is Sarah Tynan's Zerlina who emerges as the sexual predator, the character most confident in her skin.

Interesting as many of Norris's ideas are, Don Giovanni does not point to a change in the fortunes of a company whose best work obstinately remains outside the core repertoire. Conductor Kirill Karabits's fitful reading of the score fails to cohere, despite some sublimely poised woodwind playing. Stepping in for Rebecca Evans with the merest of hiccups in "Mi tradi", Sarah Redgwick's Donna Elvira has the heart-on-sleeve energy of Judy Garland, all liquid eyes, knockout legs and restless hands. As Donna Anna, Katherine Broderick displays a voice packed with exciting potential. Her attachment to the Commendatore (Matthew Best) and non-attachment to her fiancé is not explored. Saddled with regional accents that ricochet around the British Isles, John Molloy's Masetto and Brindley Sherratt's Leporello deliver sturdy support, as does Robert Murray in the kick-me role of Don Ottavio.

Purists would say that the only thing that matters in an orchestral concert is the music. Yet nothing compares to watching music happen. The drama of a symphony is one of collective breathing, of eye and ear contact, mutual risk. Hence the London debut of Spira Mirabilis – a conductorless ensemble of young players from Orchestra Mozart and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe who develop a single work in a week of rehearsals – was uniquely thrilling. Had you closed your eyes, theirs was a period-inflected, super-caffeinated Eroica of the sort Giovanni Antonini might conduct. Eyes open, it was a live-action analysis of Beethoven's score, leadership passing from first violinist Lorenza Borrani to cellist Luise Buchberger, flautist Anne Parisot and viola player Simone Jandl as each idea was introduced and developed, with outstanding warmth and delicacy in the supporting textures. Played with such joy and daring, this was an Eroica to make any purist blink.

'Don Giovanni' (0871 911 0200) to 3 Dec

Next Week:

Anna Picard sees David McVicar's production of Adriana Lecouvreur