Don Giovanni, Grand Theatre, Leeds <br/> Ensemble Modern/Synergy/Asbury, Barbican Hall, London

Dirty no more - the Don's gone all dapper
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Like Tim Albery's Cosi fan tutte, Olivia Fuchs's new production of Don Giovanni for Opera North - set in the period immediately before the Spanish Civil War - is a clean but cautious staging. Have the good people of Leeds indicated their boredom with the Baconesque imaginations of Christopher Alden? Do Cosi and Don Giovanni point to a neo-con putsch within the company whose productions of Tosca and Vida Breve were among the most audacious and inventive I've seen? I hope not.

Like Tim Albery's Cosi fan tutte, Olivia Fuchs's new production of Don Giovanni for Opera North - set in the period immediately before the Spanish Civil War - is a clean but cautious staging. Have the good people of Leeds indicated their boredom with the Baconesque imaginations of Christopher Alden? Do Cosi and Don Giovanni point to a neo-con putsch within the company whose productions of Tosca and Vida Breve were among the most audacious and inventive I've seen? I hope not.

It's a rare production of Don Giovanni that isn't, however subtly, measured against failure rather than success. Few audience members will be confused about which character is which in this production, or why they might be behaving as they are, and maybe, for some, that is the bottom line. Fuchs's graveyard scene, here a Muñoz mortuary, is far from disastrous, and the descent to hell avoids looking like a Meatloaf video. (Since this is a notoriously difficult opera to stage, these comments are more complimentary than they might appear.)

With the exception of Donna Elvira's disconcerting change from Martha Gellhorn fatigues into 18th-century bodice and petticoat - presumably a representation of the eternal betrayed woman - the production is free of gratuitous directorial provocations, stays relatively close to the accepted plot, and is notably light on menace and violence. Punches land with nary a smack. Stab wounds stay as pale as veal. Not for Fuchs the nipple-twisting, crotch-groping, gore-splattered excess of Calixto Bieito's Don Giovanni, which, for all its manic neologisms, at least attempted to translate the story in modern terms. Instead we have a suave smoothie who is fleet of foot, sweet of tone, and scrupulous in his avoidance of any of the more obvious erogenous zones of the female body.

The balance between thug and gentleman in this character's psyche is hard to call, but in Fuch's production the aristocratic zipper is lowered only once. (Sorry, but I'm paid to notice these things.) Of course, as one scholar of Da Ponte's libretti observed, we have no way of ascertaining how "successful" Don Giovanni's rape of Donna Anna is. With Zerlina he barely gets past first base before his coitus is interruptus. Thus the opera can be read as a comedy of frustrated tumescence. (A kind of hell itself, I'm told.) Whether this explains the elevated Fred Astaire posture of Roderick Williams's debonair Don, I do not know. He sings ravishingly and moves like a cat on the ladders and walkways of Niki Turner's simple set. But he looks more likely to mix you a dry martini and take you for a spin in his Bugatti than break into your bedroom and kill your dad. Perhaps Gene Kelly's athletic balletics would have been a better model? Among the rest of Opera North's cast, the Donnas Anna (Susannah Glanville) and Elvira (Giselle Allen) stand out for intensity and accuracy. Though Glanville strains at the top, she doesn't shy away from it like a frightened pony, which Zerlina (Kim-Marie Woodhouse) sadly does. Andrew Foster-Williams makes an oddly muted Leporello, while Iain Paton is true to form in his exquisite shaping of Don Ottavio's ensembles and disappointing accounts of the arias. Wyn Pencarreg's Masetto is better drawn in this production than in several others I've seen. Taken separately, their singing is good rather than brilliant. In ensemble, however, they are magnificent. Richard Farnes, one of the happy handful of Music Directors on the British opera scene who are staying with their companies for the foreseeable future, has balanced each scene beautifully, making every note and word of the score and libretto (sung in Amanda Holden's translation) tell. To my taste, Farnes's tempi are conservative, even old-fashioned, but the shape of the opera makes sense in his hands and is played with confidence by the orchestra. Their diminuendi are eloquent and illuminating, and the trio at the beginning of Act II is wonderful. Theatrically, a Don Giovanni for the grey pounders. Musically, a Don Giovanni for all.

If Opera North's audience was looking more mature than usual last weekend, Tuesday's audience at the Barbican was positively pubescent. What is it about Steve Reich that lures vast numbers of bright young things into a concert hall? Is it his BPM appeal? (That's beats per minutes, grandad.) Is it the multiple microphones? Is it the open-mike-night sibilance of frayed-to-the-limit limiters? (NB: Reich himself was at the mixing desk.) And what is it that sustains the Barbican regulars who, like me, were left feeling like middle-aged aunts and uncles charged with accompanying their hipper-than-thou nieces and nephews to a rock concert? To answer the last question, it is his ability to alter colour through minute adjustments in the doubling of instruments. The difference between voice plus oboe, voice plus flute, and voice plus oboe and flute is, once you tune into it, as fascinating as any similar piquancy of scoring in Rameau or Ravel, and especially flavoursome when set against the bright slice of open strings and the percussive locomotion of up to four grand pianos. Though often bracketed with Glass and Adams, Reich's minimalism is more complex than that of the former, and of a different aesthetic to the latter. Where Adams points to Wagner, Schoenberg, Bach and swing, Reich nods at earlier and later musical styles. (His programme note to You Are (Variations) mentions James Brown and "L'homme armé" as sources.) At its fractured best, his syllabic word-setting can illuminate a text like Monteverdi's forensic repetitions of the plainchant in the Sonata sopra Sancta Maria. But I have to say that I found it jolly hard to appreciate such subtleties at the volume they were amplified to on Tuesday night. Under Stefan Asbury (a conductor Britain really should see more of), Ensemble Modern played Eight Lines with electrifying energy, joined by the attractive female voices of Synergy for Tehillim: a work that, in terms of its artfully affectless vocal writing and persuasive structure, greatly excels You Are (Variations). Had Reich stuck to his original prescription of mixing amplified and unamplified instruments, I'd have enjoyed this concert rather than admiring it.

a.picard@independent.co.uk

'Don Giovanni': Leeds Grand Theatre (0113 222 6222), to 2 February, then touring

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