Don Giovanni, Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff
Gerhaher / Huber, Wigmore Hall, London
Philharmonia / Salonen, Royal Festival Hall, London

A lacklustre 'Don' proves that Cardiff's change at the top is just the ticket

Last month David Pountney became the new artistic director of Welsh National Opera, inheriting from his predecessor a 2011-12 season of stultifying blandness.

Some expressed surprise at the appointment of a director whose last work in Cardiff was a 2006 Kazakhstan space-station production of The Flying Dutchman. But the moment at which Pountney's influence is felt cannot come soon enough. Over the past decade, the company has slipped through a time-rift, countering the intelligent provocations of Richard Jones's Wozzeck and Die Meistersinger with sentimental casting, timid programming and arthritic operettas. The logic of the appointment is clear: who better to bring WNO back to the future than the man who transformed ENO in the 1980s?

Pountney has five years in which to regenerate WNO. A Lulu has been promised, and a Ring cycle hinted at. For the time being, however, it is business as usual with John Caird's Don Giovanni, an unfocused attempt to balance the comic and serious elements of Mozart's dramma giocoso. Though a handsome replica of Rodin's La Porte de l'Enfer dominates John Napier's set, the costuming is prettily 18th century, with horn rims for Nuccia Focile's deluded Donna Elvira and Robin Tritschler's Don Ottavio. While he and Camilla Roberts's grief-crazed Donna Anna are played straight, Focile opts for arms-akimbo daffiness.

A silent chorus of bronzed statues in monks' habits glides across the stage periodically, more comic than sinister in effect. Meanwhile, David Kempster's libertine appears to have been modelled on Fellini's Casanova, an ageing debauch fuelled by the memory of his meticulously catalogued conquests. Only the working-class characters are fully developed: David Soar's resentful Leporello, Samantha Hay's soft-centred Zerlina, Gary Griffiths's wary Masetto. If retribution is to come, Caird seems to suggest, it will come with the guillotine, not the spooky bronze monks. Just 18 months separate Don Giovanni from The Marriage of Figaro but having nodded at revolutionary foment, Caird does nothing with it. Instead, we have a crude comedy of aristocratic coitus interruptus.

Seriousness and subversiveness come from the pit, where conductor Lothar Koenigs slices into each off-beat sigh and stab of dissonance. Here, at least, you feel that this overexposed, dramaturgically uneven opera matters. The orchestral texture is transparent; the timbres are as muscular as Rodin's writhing souls in torment. Vocally, too, there are rewards: Tritschler's tonal brilliance, Kempster's swaggering ease with the text, Soar's attractive sound and expressive phrasing, Griffiths's warmth, Roberts's emotional bravery, Hay's tenderness. Neither a Mozartian nor a comedian, Focile is the exception, out of shape and out of sorts in Elvira's quasi-Baroque figures, while Carlo Malinverno's Commendatore is too pale and drab to terrify. A very mixed blessing, in sum, and the strongest of arguments in favour of a regime change at WNO.

At the Wigmore Hall, Christian Gerhaher and Gerold Huber closed their series of Schubert cycles with Schwanengesang, Tobias Haslinger's posthumous anthology of the composer's last songs. There is no over-arching narrative here, no journey of enchantment or embitterment, no single voice. Instead, we have a series of discrete reflections on water, tears and moonlight, almost minimalist in the closeness of their focus. Unquestionably the leading Schubertian of his generation, Gerhaher matches this distillation in his singing, each consonant and vowel supported on the purest tone. While he is the introvert, Huber is the extrovert, boldly percussive in his pointing of the left hand figures in "Der Atlas", painterly in his colouring of the distracted harmonies of "Die Stadt". I can think of no better place to be than in the millpond, midnight stillness of their reading of "Des Fischers Liebesglück". Chamber music at its most truthful, most troubling and consoling.

Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Philharmonia Orchestra launched their new season with a blast of Nordic doom. Narrated by Sweden's Orphei Drangar, their bright voices blazing over the hurtling orchestral textures, Sibelius's Kullervo is a story of extreme brutality in an extreme landscape. Thematically close to Wagner's incestuous twins Siegmund and Sieglinde, the orphaned Kullervo (Jukka Rasilainen) and his unrecognised sister (Monica Groop) have no mutual shivers of ecstasy. This is rape, and the fallout is terrible. Though peppered with deputies, the orchestra played with unstinting intensity and the choral and solo singing was arresting. What Brahms's Violin Concerto was doing in the same programme, I don't know. This was a doggedly metrical performance from Viktoria Mullova, and a poor coda to Sibelius's Death of Mélisande, Salonen's delicately shaded tribute to the late Kurt Sanderling.

'Don Giovanni' (029-2063 6464) to Wed, then touring

Next Week:

Anna Picard heads to ENO for Fiona Shaw's Marriage of Figaro

Classical Choice

English Touring Opera hits the road with a revival of Flavio and new productions of The Fairy Queen and Xerxes, Britten Theatre, London (from Thu). Robin Ticciati conducts the Scottish Chamber Orchestra in Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique and Tristia and Schumann's Genoveva overture, at Edinburgh's Usher Hall, Thu, and Glasgow's City Halls (Fri).

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