Don Giovanni, Royal Opera House, London

Nemesis calls for Terfel's towering Don
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The Independent Culture

It could be you. The fickle finger of fate looms large (in every sense) over the Royal Opera's new staging of Mozart's Don Giovanni. In the final moments of the opera, retribution swoops down in the form of a huge flaming gauntlet. The Commendatore has offered his hand; the Don, unfazed, undeterred, unrepentant, takes it. When the Don is Bryn Terfel, you don't doubt for a moment that he will.

Terfel's commanding presence was always going to be the defining factor in Francesca Zambello's new staging. He is a force of nature on any stage and where he goes, the production tends to go. So right from the outset here, right from his precipitous departure from Donna Anna's bedchamber, there was a feeling that Terfel's view of the character, and thus the piece, came before anything. It probably didn't happen that way at all, but that's the way it read. His intimidating stature and voice will make an interesting comparison with the altogether slighter Simon Keenlyside when he assumes the role in a couple of weeks time. Then perhaps we shall know how much of this take on the opera was Zambello and how much Terfel.

For the time being, it read thus. This Don is fast approaching his eleventh hour. He and his kind are a whisper away from extinction. The charm is wearing thin, so are the clothes. That which he can no longer win with his charm and sexual prowess, he takes, he brutalises. In that sense Terfel and Zambello would appear to have picked up on a key factor in the opera: that during the course of it, during his last 24 hours, he does not add to his prodigious tally of women in Spain. He has slipped down the food chain, an animal sniffing the air for the scent of his prey, lying in wait around dark corners, pouncing, pawing, bullying. Terfel conveys all of this with his customary energy and ease. I love the way that much of his recitative is delivered furtively, under the breath, lest he blow his cover. His honeyed head voice is used like a mating call, but when he opens up, be afraid, be very afraid. He is literally terrific.

So Zambello plays the opera fairly straight like a simple morality tale framed within the ugly false proscenium of Maria Bjornson's design. It's overbearing, this proscenium, and more often than not more brightly lit than the action. I assume that's deliberate, an alienating device. But it doesn't work. It's distracting. For the rest, a black, latticed, scorched wall dominates the stage: petrified hands reach through it, crucifixes and a lifesize Madonna adorn it. It turns, like the hours of the day. On its reverse, a painted, faded ballroom. Decay, an endgame, is clearly the visual message here. But Zambello doesn't add much to it. She is heavy-handed in pointing up the class distinctions and one can't help feeling that she constantly needs to find things for the chorus and/or extras to do. She seems happier with lots of bodies.

The principal bodies were very good indeed. The wronged ladies, Adrianne Pieczonka (Donna Anna) and Melanie Diener (Donna Elvira) sang with great resolve, Diener delivering a particularly fine "Mi tradi", its tormented, leaping chromaticism bang on target. Rebecca Evans's beautifully sung Zerlina was outstanding, Rainer Trost's fitful Don Ottavio much less so. And then there was Alan Held's splendidly incisive Leporello, looking just like Terfel's under-fed alter ego.

Sir Colin Davis's fleshy account of the score was always illuminating. Not exactly lean and hungry but beautiful and grandly authoritative. The flames of hell may have leapt dangerously close to his podium (yes, for once we really felt their heat), but the finger of fate was not pointing in his direction.

To 28 February (020-7304 4000)

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