More than 200 years after their premiere, the sulphurous opening chords of Don Giovanni still shock.
As Glyndebourne's auditorium is plunged into darkness, with a single spotlight on conductor Vladimir Jurowski, director Jonathan Kent shows us what lies in wait for Mozart's murderous libertine. Here is retribution and damnation, a black void in which the stone guest is moving ever nearer, his tread heard in the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment's rasping brass and hollow kettledrums, the wraiths of other victims traced in the icy scales of the woodwind. Here too, unhappily, is the most impactful image of this production.
Run Kent's Don Giovanni backwards and it would be a corker, the exploded angles and vertiginous rakes of Paul Brown's bravura set slowly folding in to form the dusty mausoleum seen in the allegro of the overture. The bloodied skull of Alastair Miles's Act I Commendatore is scarier than the suppurating zombie of the graveyard scene. Even the hellfire is misplaced, as Guido Loconsolo's copper-voiced ox of a Masetto ignites the Don's palace at the close of Act I. Brown's glamorous 1950s costumes keep the social and sexual mores intact, yet Kent's take on this most difficult of works remains unclear, the balance between comedy and tragedy uncertain.
Psychopathic from the start, Gerald Finley's suavely sung Don fails to convey any lust for life or lust for lust. With the exception of Luca Pisaroni's voluble, amoral Leporello and Kate Royal's fragile, tender Donna Elvira, the characterisations are as unsympathetic as the singing is polished. Anna Samuil's Donna Anna looks and sounds as hard as nails, while Anna Virovlansky's brittle, bottle-blonde Zerlina is left to sing "Vedrai carino" alone. William Burden's reticent Don Ottavio is deprived of "Il mio tesoro" in the 1788 edition, but stretches "Dalla sua pace" to compensate. The most exciting performance comes from Jurowski and the OAE, who make those chords blaze with horror.
Written in the aftermath of the Los Angeles earthquake, I was looking at the ceiling and then I saw the sky is John Adams's problem child, a virtuosic singspiel fashioned from shreds of bebop, funk, gospel, salsa, soul and swing, with lyrics by the late poet June Jordan. In a city still crackling with fury after the riots of 1992, seven LA archetypes meet, their stories unfolding in flashback until the fracture of freeways and skyscrapers brings catharsis.
Kerry Michael and Matthew Xia's Theatre Royal Stratford East/Barbican co-production eradicates the whiff of pastiche in Adams's score, with a young cast drawn from musical theatre and a pit band who are free to improvise under Clark Rundell's taut beat. One minute you're in thrall to Stevie Wonder, the next to Herbie Hancock, Linda Ronstadt in Latin mode, Dana Bryant or Rachelle Ferrell. Jordan's passion for pulpit rhetoric and compound adjectives is the only constant. "Song about the Bad Boys and the News" frames a volatile, big-band trio in praise of "the do-Right-dude-in-the-all-night-delicatessen-of-my-MTV-excitable excitement" with the a capella simplicity of a revivalist hymn. "Solo in Sunlight" is the only weak number, a flat-footed Dad Rock strut. Yet common wisdom has it I was looking at the ceiling ... hasn't aged well.
Consider the backstories. Dewain (Leon Lopez) is a gang leader who has been in and out of jail. His girlfriend Consuelo (Anna Mateo) is an illegal immigrant from El Salvador. His lawyer Rick (Colin Ryan) fled Vietnam in a boat as a child. Leila (Cynthia Erivo) is a birth-control activist, her lover David (Jason Denton) a tom-catting preacher. News reporter Tiffany (Natasha J Barnes) is in love with Mike (Stewart Charlesworth), a cop who doesn't know he is gay. Some of these issues have slipped from the headlines since 1994. Most have not.
The problem is not the subject matter but the dramaturgy. Rick, Dewain and David are three variants of the good guy whose life has been derailed by war, poverty or sex, while Mike comes to terms with his sexuality in two minutes after denying it for a lifetime. The women fare better. Though Mateo struggles vocally, she brings candour and intensity to Consuelo. But the show belongs to Erivo, a knockout in Leila's show-stopping ballad "Alone (Again or at Last)", and to Barnes, whose self-destructive fantasy "How far can I go in a car (driven by a cop)" rivals Sondheim in its word-lust and psychological acuity. It's not a perfect show. But my goodness, there's a lot to chew on.
'Don Giovanni': to 27 Aug (01273 813813; 'I was looking at the ceiling and then I saw the sky': to 17 Jul (0845 120 7550)
Anna Picard dives into Punchdrunk and ENO's immersion project, The Duchess of MalfiReuse content