In Hildegard Bechtler's set, the pit is sometimes visible, sometimes obscured by a platform that rises, lowers, tilts repeatedly. This will be the table for Giovanni's last supper, a boxing ring for his final tussle with the Commendatore. As Giovanni ejaculates his Champagne Aria from its edge, it tilts vertiginously: he teeters on the brink - of madness, oblivion, death itself.
This Giovanni is no refined sensualist, but a lout who prefers a vest to a shirt. With an unshaven Gilles Cachemaille in the role, he resembles Rab C Nesbitt, and during his valedictory repast he aims a perfectly projected belch at the audience. That gesture is almost as shocking as the abuse he heaps on the statue of the Madonna that is his constant companion for the last third of the opera.
Symbols excite him as much as the flesh they stand for. Serenading Zerlina, he caresses the fabric of her wedding dress: the sign of her virginity is as arousing as she is. He is a Giovanni on a human scale, not some debauched bermensch. His Act 1 party lurches out of his control, and when his vengeful guests confront him, he cowers before their rage. The whole production avoids aggrandisement: in the graveyard Giovanni confronts not a stone statue but the Commendatore in a suit, strolling almost casually.
If Warner's Giovanni is as frailly human as the rest of us, he was made more so by the cough that racked Cachemaille on Monday night. The voice deteriorated noticeably in Act 2, yet in some odd way that made Giovanni more, not less heroic: a man visibly defying the limits. Sympathy for Cachemaille became admiration for Giovanni's battles with convention. It may not have been great music - and Cachemaille does have a lovely voice - but it became fine theatre.
Not that the performance was shorn of all beauty. Under Yakov Kreizberg, the period instruments of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment gave a performance as lacking in bombast as what we saw on stage. The cast responded warmly. Steven Page's Leporello was a touch coarse, but there was intensity to compensate; and John Mark Ainsley's Ottavio, no wimpish fop, had a rare dignity. Yet, Giovanni apart, perhaps the most moving moments came from Masetto and Zerlina.
Roberto Scaltriti got just the right surly resentment into his proley Masetto; while Juliane Banse not only displayed a lovely voice, she moved with an affecting naturalness. Apparently she trained as a ballerina, and her physical grace marks her out as something special. There have been productions of Don Giovanni that were more confrontational, more dangerous; but this was an ensemble performance of genuine quality. NK
Deliberate dry coughing from an operatic character would certainly be an innovation of sorts. But, then, Deborah Warner is noted for her radical rethinking of works, and so for the first few minutes of her modern-dress Don Giovanni, I found myself wondering if, in this incarnation, the epically promiscuous hero was meant to be evincing early symptoms of Aids, a state of which, true to his onrushing, unreflecting nature, he would remain unaware to the end.
It quickly became clear, though, that it wasn't the character who was suffering from a throat problem but the singer. Yet Gilles Cachemaille did not allow his indisposition to deflect him from creating a powerfully tantalising sense of the Don as a sort of void for all seasons. A scrubby- bearded, moneyed nonentity who changes his shirts like skins, he inhabits an abstract landscape as inscrutably impersonal as himself, with its polythene- sheet curtains, its concrete pillars and its central platform that rises, falls and tilts, abolishing fixity and creating vast, alienating distances between the characters.
From the opening scene when he tries to throttle the Commendatore with the blindfold he has brazenly ripped off (no harm in revealing yourself to a man you are shortly to make a corpse), this Don is a clown-connoisseur of perverse violations. He seduces Zerlina by the erotically paradoxical tactic of buttoning her into her bridal gown, an action he performs as if he were delicately divesting her. When the masked trio enter his ballroom and sing "Viva la liberta", he lies down flat on the floor before them, bucking his pelvis up in a mocking invitation to put theory into instant practice.
Liberty as licence (or libertinage) is a confined and confining notion of liberty rather than its lifeforce-symbolising summation, or at least that is the view I think we are meant to derive here from the Don's frivolously extreme final blasphemies. Trying to copulate on his huge supper table with a statue of the Virgin, he takes his penchant for bird-pulling to farcically futile limits, earning a literally stony answer from the least available woman in history. Even as he is sucked down to hell through his tablecloth (an image of a picnic gone horribly wrong that's rather droll at this address), Cachemaille keeps up a wilful front of unconcern that's as laughable as it is heroic. Not waving but drowning, he is swallowed up by the infernal flames, still wearing a daft no-problem-I'll-be-back- in-a-jiffy grin.
A generously selfless acceptance of consequences or a refusal to acknowledge the full extent of his life's meaning? Splendidly evoking the solitariness in which most of the characters are bound (if not perhaps to the taste of sticklers for detailed social context), Warner's gripping, grimly funny existentialist take brings out the second option in all its tragicomedy. PT
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