Judgement in stone

Strong, direct, absorbing. WNO's latest 'Don Giovanni', directed by Katie Mitchell and conducted by Carlo Rizzi, has staying power. By Stephen Walsh
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The Independent Culture
Many years have passed since Welsh National Opera last revived the ill-fated Ruth Berghaus Don Giovanni, and there was bated breath round Cardiff's New Theatre on Saturday when the curtain went up on its successor, directed by RSC regular, Katie Mitchell.

The problem with Berghaus was clutter - intellectual as well as physical. With Mitchell and her designer Rae Smith, one is at once aware of space, and the imagery is discreet: a wall, a window, a doorway, a mercifully open stage. This is evidently a producer who, though new to opera, notices the requirements of a music dominated by convention, and who isn't afraid to pose inactive characters or adapt movements to the slow pace of classical harmonic rhythm. The powerful moments are isolated gestures in a statuesque context: Don Giovanni brushes Donna Anna's cheek, and even in the relatively uncourtly world of 1920s Spain, where Mitchell sets the action, her sudden suspicion is explained, and in a sinister, sensuous way that implicates her as well.

Psychologically and choreographically, this is a strong, direct, absorbing production which will surely have staying power. What one makes of its dominant metaphor, the conception and resurrection of Christ, I'm less sure. When Piero's Madonna del Parto - the pregnant Madonna - scrolls up to reveal a courtesan at a window (Mary Magdalene?), one senses an irony. But when the Statue reveals itself as Fra Angelico's Christ in Majesty, there is only one meaning, and the risk is obvious.

In fact, the producer has style on her side: Mozart's trombones prove he had divine judgement in mind. But whether she quite carries it through in the final scene, with its cowled chorus and mountainous, less than other-worldly Commendatore (Anthony Stuart Lloyd), is more debatable. The ending lacks flames and it lacks real fire.

Her greatest ally throughout is the conductor, Carlo Rizzi, who gives a marvellously alive, swift yet poised account of the score. What a joy to hear Mozart played with such instinctive pace and timing and such fine instrumental feeling. It must be said, though, that Rizzi doesn't invariably take the singers with him. And the cast is patchy. Davide Domaniani plays the Don a shade heavily, as an overcoated tycoon who wields money rather than class, and his singing, though agile and well-focused, lacks real distinction. Cara O'Sullivan's Donna Anna is stylish but short of warmth, and Gwyn Hughes Jones had a bad off-night as Don Ottavio - variable in both tone and tuning.

There was better from Alwyn Mellor, after an indifferent start in "Ah! chi mi dice mai" (surtitles as usual these days in Cardiff). By "Mi tradi" she had the measure of Donna Elvira's self-deception - the lie of manner overlaying sensuality which Mozart so well understood; and she sang it with elegance and passion. I also very much liked Catrin Wyn Davies's Zerlina: that sly peasant vulnerability nicely caught. "Batti, batti" was the most touching moment of the evening, and Davide Baronchelli supported her with a sturdy, well-sung Masetto. But Arwel Huw Morgan will surely improve as Leporello. He sang with wit, but his voice occasionally let him down, and - like others - he sometimes seemed surprised by Rizzi's tempi.

n Further performances of 'Don Giovanni' at the New Theatre, Cardiff, on Thursday, then 24, 27, 30 Sept (01222 878889), and on tour. Details from Welsh National Opera: 01222-464666