Fired by the Olivier-winning success of their miniature ‘Boheme’ last year, OperaUpClose have become fizzingly prolific. After three pocket productions at the Kings Head, they have now moved back to the slightly more spacious Soho Theatre with ‘Mozart’s Don Giovanni’, whose title reflects the fact that other cooks besides Wolfgang had a hand in its creation.
Director-librettist Robin Norton-Hale’s version of this fable places it in pre-crunch, early-Noughties London, reproducing the speech you’d hear in any wine-bar, with characters drawn straight from life. Johnny (the Don) is a city trader, with Alexander (Leporello) being his intern, while his best friend Octavius is another trader. Anna’s father (the Commendatore) is a retired barrister; Zerlina (Mozart’s country wench) is about to go travelling on a post-university gap year, with Nathaniel (Mozart’s bumpkin Masetto) accompanying her.
The multi-purpose set serves as private house, pub, gentlemen’s club, and mortuary; instrumental support consists of a piano and synthesiser. The overture is a mash-up of a scratchy old orchestral recording plus an electronic rhythm-track: it all feels chaotic and a bit dangerous.
In the opening scene that danger turns viral: Marc Callahan, as the debonair and cynical Johnny, commits rape and murder with brutal sang-froid, after which - souped-up by the synthesiser - the duet between Fleur Bray (Anna) and Anthony Flaum (Octavius) becomes a searing musical portrayal of shock. Tom Stoddart, as Alexander, makes the perfect foil for his master, with the same build, a fairly similar voice, and a corresponding wide-boy charisma.
First impressions are that these performers were chosen as much for their acting skills as for their voices, and the whole thing is a curious hybrid (with the splicing between Mozart and rhythm-tracks being fairly hit-and-miss). When the vocal set-pieces spark as they should, we get grand opera, but for much of the time it’s music-theatre laced with jokes and comic business, though Norton-Hale makes better sense of the final scene – with Johnny going mad - than most kosher opera directors do.
There are two casts, and on the first night three singers stood out. Rosalind Coad conveyed Elvira’s unhingedness while floating gorgeous high notes; Emily-Jane Thomas’s lovely Zerlina would not be out of place in Covent Garden; and Gerard Delrez invested the Commendatore with frightening monumentality. Emily Leather’s piano accompaniment was exquisite.