OPERA / Demonic invention: Nick Kimberley on Don Giovanni in Parma, Italy

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The Independent Culture
Sometimes operatic disaster can actually serve to raise the dramatic temperature. So it was on the last night of Mozart's Don Giovanni at Parma's Teatro Regio: emerging from a clinch with Christoph Pregardien's Ottavio, Luba Orgonasova's Donna Anna found her wig snared on Ottavio's coat buttons. That kind of mishap can ruin a show. Not here, where the audience's laughter was tinged with sympathy.

Orgonasova deserved no less. Displaying admirable sang-froid, and never losing her way in the music, she detached herself from the wig, detached the wig from the button and calmly disposed of it at the rear of the stage. Just as Donna Anna teeters on a knife-edge, so did Orgonasova. It certainly ensured that the audience was paying attention.

The Parma performances marked the start of John Eliot Gardiner's annual European tour of a Mozart opera, culminating in a recording. As usual, Gardiner was conducting the period instruments of the English Baroque Soloists, here accompanying a thoughtful, sometimes risky modern staging by Lorenzo Mariani, far better than a production striving for stale 'authenticity'.

When this Don Giovanni reaches London next week, it will be in semi-staged concert performances. No doubt many will be grateful, but Mariani's staging had some style, wit and ideas.

William Orlandi's designs cut the stage into a semi-circle, cordoned off at the rear by floor-to-ceiling white curtains. They not only enabled singers to slip mysteriously away, but also provided an arena, a bullring for Rodney Gilfry's satanic Giovanni, tormented and hyperactive. At first it seemed that Gilfry's manic energy might be making up for vocal lightness, but as the show progressed, the voice gained the authority it needed to match Andrea Silvestrelli's Commendatore.

Silvestrelli's young voice has a tendency to blur at the edges, but its volume threatened the building's very fabric. As the stone guest, he came to supper from the back of the stalls, allowing Giovanni to shake his hand only by means of a human chain stretching from auditorium to stage: one of several inventive ways in which the production broached the proscenium arch.

Two singers stood out in Gardiner's zesty, youngish cast: Christoph Pregardien, deprived of Ottavio's Act 2 aria, nevertheless gave the character a dignity usually denied to it; and like Gilfry, Orgonasova seemed to gain a dimension as the opera went on. Perhaps put on her mettle by the wig incident, she was really flying in 'Non mi dir'.

In the pit, Gardiner ensured that the vigour of the dramatic momentum never obscured the delicate textures of the period instruments. On the night I attended - but not, apparently, in earlier performances - he omitted the sextet finale in which the survivors smugly warn against the evils of Giovanniesque excess.

As a result, the evening's final, disturbing image was of Giovanni being eaten alive by some of the women he'd tormented during his dissolute life: oral sex with a difference. Musically, dramatically, there was nothing prissy about this Don Giovanni.

'Don Giovanni': 9, 11 June 7pm QEH, South Bank Centre, London SE1 (071-928 8800)

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