Don Giovanni: now a stadium rock dandy

Don Giovanni | Glyndebourne Festival Opera
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What is going on with British opera audiences? First we get the peasants revolt at the Kirov's creaky Kovanshchina and now booing and jeering at Glyndebourne. Despite the strawberries and cream, the hunt ball frocks, and the baaing and braying of the shampooed sheep and polished picnickers, last Saturday's opening of Graham Vick's Don Giovanni was a very continental affair.

What is going on with British opera audiences? First we get the peasants revolt at the Kirov's creaky Kovanshchina and now booing and jeering at Glyndebourne. Despite the strawberries and cream, the hunt ball frocks, and the baaing and braying of the shampooed sheep and polished picnickers, last Saturday's opening of Graham Vick's Don Giovanni was a very continental affair.

Poor Vick must be feeling awfully unloved after this, his last season at Glyndebourne. But the audience had been primed to dislike his Don by an intensive bout of critical agitprop, the main problem being that room: his "rehearsal studio" for the light, bright Cosi, the frame for his maladroit, gauze-partitioned Figaro and now a blank space to be desecrated by the dissolute Don. And the rumours of its desecration had been circling for months, so the tittering began as soon as the curtain went up. And there was the familiar white room, with a huge mountain of brown matter cast across half of it. Any doubts as to what it represented were rapidly quashed by the dirty protest smeared across the back wall. Clearly this production was intended to evoke a heap of shit from the start.

The curious thing was how personally everyone appeared to take this - as though Vick had walked up, introduced himself and then smacked them with an old mackerel. But there can scarcely be any illusions that Don Giovanni is a "nice" opera - its hero is a serial rapist and a murderer - or indeed that it is easy to stage. Evil and retribution are uncomfortably absolute concepts for modern times and misogyny runs riot through the piece. The three female types - foolish (Zerlina), romantic-obsessive (Donna Elvira) and frigid (Donna Anna) - all come to grief through humiliation, abandonment or assault, and Vick's production runs with that intrinsic misogyny only to scream hysterically "All men are bastards!" at the end. It's Vick's choice to make of course, but given that this is structurally and musically the most delicate of the Da Ponte operas the sex-war propaganda rather overwhelms the music. Quite what he was trying to achieve by the mish-mash of 1950s Sunday-best and rock-star roccoco costuming I'm not sure, but the message of the ordure was clear enough, and heavily underlined by the later additions of a horse's corpse and a human skeleton.

If you closed your eyes, there was some good playing going on; Andrew Davis's smart, brisk tempi and clever detailing were pleasing as always, but then at least half of the point of any opera is what you see, and even the singing was not all of the high standard you expect at that house. On the upside there was a radiant if careful Donna Anna in the form of Barbara Frittoli. Bruce Ford as the emasculated Don Ottavio was firm, clear and muscular, and, though he does oafishness very well, Canadian baritone Nathan Berg was far too good for such a slight part as Masetto - particularly since neither Leporello (Alessandro Corbelli) nor the one-dimensional Don Giovanni (Natale de Carolis) did much to distinguish themselves vocally. Of the rest of the cast, Donna Elvira (Sandra Zeltzer) was unwell, Patrizia Bicciere's Zerlina was stodgy, and the Commendatore (Gwynne Howell) was stripped of dramatic power by having to sing in dressing gown and pyjamas.

No performer really had much room to shine in this gallery of stereotypes, but I'd be lying if I said that I didn't rather enjoy it - albeit for all the wrong reasons. There was a wealth of film references to chew on; Tin Drum, The Godfather, La Dolce Vita, Elvira's Baby Jane maquillage, the Carrie graveyard of grasping human hands, and of course the Don himself - all fake tan and long black hair and very, very Spinal Tap. This was Don Giovanni as stadium rock dandy; the unlikely love child of Axel Rose and Lawrence Llewelyn Bowen.

How ironic that Llewelyn Bowen should have been invoked here, when the main complaint about Vick's trilogy has been that the room never changes. We were having a marvellous time imagining St Lawrence of the Decor sashaying around the set suggesting that a hint of manure could be very "now" against a white background but, as befits this irredeemably unpleasant opera, the Don was way too busy brandishing his machismo to be fiddling with a dado-rail.

When resting from physical and sexual assaults, this Don's main love was the mirror; four of them flashed around him as he sang of his conquests, recalling the lights of a disco-ball or the pot-shots of paparazzi. He began the evening in a series of flamboyant frock coats before posing shrink-wrapped in leather trousers and a nipple-grazing singlet straight from the closet of the Village People. The opera called for approximately eight full costume changes - all of which were a pleasant distraction from his unseductive singing - until he finally dressed for dinner with the Commendatore in leathers, preposterously shiny cowboy boots, a bare chest and a floor-length coat that appeared to have been made from the skin of Fozzie Bear.

As the Don began his dinner of synthetic horse's entrails - and I presume from the lack of gore that it was a Halal horse - Leporello (who had not proved himself much of a comedian thus far) was translated in the surtitles as saying "Suits you, sir" to the predictable snorts of an already feisty audience. Just as it seemed impossible for the production to descend any further, Vick sent in the clones. Don Giovanni was dragged down to hell, not by his former seducees but by a further 20 or so Don Giovannis, all sporting teddy coats over their bare chests - though Glyndebourne didn't stump up for matching leathers or even PVC - and lolloping around the stage groaning in unison with the Commendatore. It was Gonk City. Small wonder then that when Don Ottavio popped the question "Shall we be married tomorrow?" shortly afterwards to Donna Anna there were loud sniggers.

So what was Vick trying to do? The madness of his Don was writ so large from the start that there was nowhere left to go - though one's instinct with Vick's productions is always to try and search for a less blunt message than the one that instantly springs to mind. There were, I think, some interesting thematic subtexts; the way in which Donna Elvira visibly lost power as Donna Anna gained it, and the Jocasta complex in Anna's extreme physicality with her father's corpse and utter coldness towards her suitor. Had the descent to hell been less comically costumed, the idea of hell not being other people but multiples of oneself is also interesting. And, I hope, the hung horse was surely there less as crude sexual reference than as a symbol of decay. But the crumbling, filthy set was apparently inspired by an abandoned mining village in Namibia and, to risk getting all knee-jerk liberal about this, what on earth does that say? That if the collapse of a local economy in a third-world country can provide an opera set in Sussex, everything's ok? Then again, maybe Vick was just smacking us with an old mackerel?

'Don Giovanni', Glyndebourne Opera (01273 813813) to 27 August

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