Don Giovanni, opera review

Royal Opera House, London

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The Independent Culture

Mozart wanted the story of Don Giovanni to be ‘really comic’, thus providing Kasper Holten with a cue for his new production, but Holten also wants to focus on the Don’s ‘creative and seductive energy’, and to ask what hell might be like for a character like him. And in the Polish baritone Mariusz Kwiecien he’s found the man for the job: when this Don appears on Donna Anna’s balcony, coolly adjusting his dress, he exudes such debonair attraction that the evident eagerness of Malin Bystrom’s Donna Anna is entirely believable. This was no rape.

But for a director of Holten’s experience, the ensuing scene is an odd aberration. Bystrom’s hysterical reaction to the Commendatore’s murder doesn’t stack up: keeping a distance from his slumped body, she sings of the deathly pallor of his face without having looked at him, and of the coldness of his limbs without having touched them; there’s a disconnect between what we hear and what we see. From this point on, however, the drama gains steadily in force thanks to the beauty of the singing, the charisma of Alex Esposito’s winningly clown-like Leporello, and the ingenious suggestiveness of Luke Halls’ video superimpositions on Es Devlin’s set.

At the centre of this set is a slowly rotating cube, a three-dimensional version of Escher’s ‘Relativity’ up and down whose maze of stairs the cast are in constant motion: its ambiguity is intensified by the ever-changing imagery projected onto it. This is by turns a flowingly calligraphed catalogue of the Don’s conquests, and a succession of scudding cloudscapes and blood-red suffusions which throw a cloak of semi-invisibility over the violence and occasional nudity. And if there are fleeting echoes of Joseph Losey’s 1979 film, the prevailing atmosphere is that of French farce, notably in Don Giovanni’s party, where Mozart’s carefully-constructed jumble of musical styles is made flesh in a dizzying to-and-fro of gorgeously-costumed figures passing through virtual-reality doors.

Holten’s direction is mostly assured, as in the Don’s seduction of Elizabeth Watts’ Zerlina, followed by Veronique Gens’ irruption as a furious (and not at all deranged) Elvira, then by Donna Anna’s chilling rewrite of her fateful encounter. Antonio Poli’s Don Ottavio is musically and dramatically the one weak link in this strong cast: Dawid Kimberg’s Masetto makes an engaging counterpart to Watts’ earthy Zerlina, Gens puts her lyric-soprano gift to lovely use in her betrayal aria, and Bystrom’s glorious performance culminates in an aria (‘Crudele?’) of awesome power. Nicola Luisotti’s conducting may be a shade rough, but his fortepiano continuo is a nice touch.

This show’s graphics are at times frantically over-busy, but it offers an elegant solution to the opera’s perennially problematic denouement. Defiant to the last, Kwiecien confronts his nemesis in the form of the most beautifully-sung Commendatore (Alexander Tsymbalyuk) I have ever heard, and becomes engulfed in a maelstrom of delusion. Then, while the lights come up and the last sextet is heard off-stage, he extends a hand to us with a rueful half-smile: hell as the prison of the self.