How did Calixto Bieito's Don Giovanni cause such a furore? First time around, it seems plausible that the shock at seeing a coke-snorting, beer-swilling, shell-suited Don was genuine. The audience booed. The critics jeered. And one rather scruffy production of an opera about rape and murder became the stick with which English National Opera could be beaten, again and again. That the réchauffé hyperbole around the current revival has been equally intemperate is unsurprising. But the most curious aspect to the whole farrago has been the collective illusion of custodial responsibility. Do we really need to protect Mozart from Bieito?
Reviewing Bieito's production back in 2001, three aspects bothered me: the abysmal quality of the musical performance, the absence of class structure, and the lack of attention to detail. After honing Don Giovanni in Hanover and Barcelona, refining its excess violence, engaging a conductor with a stronger operatic record, and assembling a greatly superior revival cast, only the second of these concerns remains. Though the overture sounds as though it was conceived for a smaller house and hurriedly revised for the Coliseum, David Parry's conducting is brisk and efficient. Any deficiency in character or colour is compensated for by this economy of gesture, though Parry should engage a specialist if he wants the fortepiano continuo to sound less like Mrs Mills.
If subsequent productions have revealed Bieito as a one trick scatologist, this is not a thoughtless reading. Dispensing with class is risky, as class is what protects Don Giovanni from suspicion, intimidates Masetto, and attracts Zerlina. Bieito instead offers hard cash, hard drugs and the magnetism of self-destruction in excelsis. At best, his production is a commentary on addiction and ambivalence. At worst, the score becomes a soundtrack. Amanda Holden's translation is more Home Counties than HBO and needs adjustment. But for all Bieito's bravado, his Don Giovanni is more nihilistic than moralistic. The deaths of the Commendatore and Don Giovanni are presented as near-accidental: the first as much the result of Leporello's shove as his master's stiletto, the second a semi-suicide from the fistful of pills popped with the Don's chaotic TV-dinner. Whether his victims - each of them complicit in their own injuries - stab him or not, this man is dying from the second we see him.
Is the production still shocking? Not in the way you might expect. Climaxes are quickly achieved and quickly become boring or tragic, but the weary, mechanical sleaziness of all this fake-believe fly-fishing and skirt-chasing is crucial to Bieito's thesis. What emerges is an extreme sexualisation of violence between the male characters and a curiously desexualised violence against women. (Leporello and Masetto are threatened with penetration. Zerlina is punched in the face.) Like a cracked tongue probing a dental cavity, Bieito worries at the subtext to Don Giovanni's compulsive priapism, highlighting the homoerotic in his high-macho thuggery. For Bieito's masculinity-obsessed, pistol-fellating Don is what the writer Mark Simpson describes as a "homo-hetero": an aggressively heterosexual man who is "just a dropped bar of soap away from homosexuality."
Fresh from a season playing bruised and abused characters in Opera North's Eight Little Greats, Mark Stone balances the lad-mag swagger of Bieito's homo-hetero Don with skinless vulnerability, exuding a cancerous air of self-hatred. In a stunningly well-balanced cast, this is a signal performance; the kind where you feel as though you can see the child who became this dangerous adult. As Elvira, Mary Plazas has similar transparency, while Victoria Simmonds's Zerlina is a masterpiece of small-town sluttishness. Iain Paterson, though ill-suited as a double for his Don, captures the black humour of Leporello's position, while William Berger's thoroughly nasty Masetto - a sharp piece of characterisation - is only slightly under-powered. Though Linda Richardson's vixen-like Donna Anna inclines to the shrill, this too is an admirably well-acted performance and a fitting foil to Barry Banks's beautifully sung Don Ottavio.
The moment when Hans-Peter Schneider's bloodied Commendatore re-emerges from the trunk of his car does not work. But neither does Don Giovanni's psychotropic vision of him in a tequila bottle or much else in Act IV. Does this matter? If you believe that opera should be protected like a listed building, it is unlikely that you will find Don Giovanni anything but repellent, though it has little in common with Quentin Tarantino or Bieito's idol, Bunuel. If you're interested in seeing just how brave and committed and musically responsible a cast of young singers can be in a challenging, often deeply faulty production, then go and go now. Because I wouldn't care to bet on a second revival. As Werther showed at Covent Garden, you reap what you sow. Kvetch about the avant garde and, whoopsadaisy, it's opera-as-diazepam all over again.
Nothing to complain about in Welsh National Opera's smooth revival of Patrice Caurier and Moshe Leiser's 1992 production of Gluck's Iphigénie en Tauride: an account as clean and direct as their Traviata was trashy and fey. Ann Murray is a little mature for this role now, but hers is a profoundly felt and very musical Iphigénie, ably supported on stage by Andrew Schroeder (Oreste), Paul Nilon (Pylade) and David Kempster (Thoas), and in the pit by Michael Hofstetter. Stylish and concentrated and succinct, I can think of no better farewell to the New Theatre: WNO's former home - as of yesterday - and the first place I saw live opera as a schoolgirl. Too hot, too small, too wedding-cakey. But I'll miss it.
'Don Giovanni': Coliseum, London WC2 (020 7632 8300), to 5 Nov; 'Iphigénie en Tauride': Grand Theatre, Swansea (01792 475715), 14 Oct & touringReuse content