Glyndebourne's 'Don Giovanni': things could only get better

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The Independent Online
BY GENERAL consent, Don Giovanni was the low point of last year's Glyndebourne season - a vacuous and sterile piece of work passed off as controversial. But that hasn't stopped the house bringing it back for a second run, nor Channel 4 from agreeing to film it for transmission later in the month. As transparent a case of New Imperial Clothing as you're ever likely to see through.

But that said, the production has improved. The problem before was that the director Deborah Warner, a distinguished name in straight theatre, didn't seem to have come to terms with the peculiar demands of the lyric stage. She cut her cloth too thin: her characters were low-key, clean but without substance - apart from Donna Elvira, the personal achievement of Amanda Roocroft who, with no competition eclipsed all around her. The Don Giovanni was soft. He changed his shirt a lot (a personal hygiene problem?); it was the only memorable thing he did, apart from getting swallowed by his own supper at the end (a pertinent image, I thought, for Glyndebourne) and simulating the sex act with a statue of the Virgin Mary (one of the most contemptibly gratuitous ploys to grab an audience's flagging attention I have ever seen). And so it went on ... as to some extent it still does. Giovanni is still screwing the BVM; his party-goers are still jiving grotesquely to the minuet, quadrille and waltz that jostle for attention at the end of act one; and the whole thing, with its pseudo- chic contemporary clothes and abstract set, still looks like a set of mannequins from Next running riot on the shop-floor.

However, there have also been some major reconsiderations since last year. The characters are fuller, bigger, less self-conscious, stirred up by a stronger Leporello in Steven Page. The temper of the staging isn't quite so wilfully cool as it was: the Commendatore, for example, is allowed a touch of ghostliness this time (before, he could have been a member of the audience wandering idly on stage). And the costumes have been toned down - to the point where some of the stage pictures are actually quite impressive. I always liked the abstract set, especially the lighting (Jean Kalman).

But alas: if the production has improved, the music has deteriorated. The "period" Age of Enlightenment Orchestra plays elegantly, and most of the cast have something to offer. Hillevi Martinpelto's Anna is a slightly heavy, laboured voice, but blossoms into beauty; and Roberto Scaltriti's Masetto is outstanding: fierce, strong, dark, a Don Giovanni-in-waiting (on the first night it even looked as though he might have to take over the Don of an ailing Gilles Cachemaille). A pity, that, because Cachemaille is a warm, enveloping voice, and it was painful to hear him struggle with the symptoms of what we were told was a viral infection. But it was almost as painful to hear the straying ensemble and missed cues that betoken a not-terribly-effective conductor in Yakov Kreizberg. Last time round it was Simon Rattle; the comparison is invidious. Kreizberg comes with credentials. As the new principal conductor of the Bournemouth Symphony and music director of the Komische Oper, Berlin, he really ought to know what he's about, and seems to be a sensitive musician with ideas - but not, alas, with the authority to make them happen. The co-ordination and ensemble weren't impressive, and the deficiency in his cueing was clear from the start - when Leporello came in late, sounding rather surprised, on the very first sung note of the score. Not a happy omen.

Nor did he seem able to get the best out of a period-instrument band, a limitation evidenced by the way he kept shaking his left hand at the strings as though he wanted them to play vibrato. I think he needs half an hour with John Eliot Gardiner; or failing that, with Gardiner's new Don Giovanni recording for DG, which has a less than ideal cast, but gives a good idea of how to motivate and energise a period ensemble with a sense of purpose.

For another lesson in motivation, he could do worse than spend an evening at The Real Don Juan, a small but remarkable show created out of nothing but exuberant high energy and punchy, physical direction (Anna Coombs) at Hampstead's New End Theatre. It isn't opera - no one sings, exactly - but it is a fascinating variant on the Giovanni story, as adapted by the mid-19th-century Spanish playwright Jose Zorrilla and translated into virtuosically accomplished English verse by Ranjit Bolt. Zorrilla gave Don Juan two on-stage conquests, an avenging father and a comic servant, just like Mozart; but he twists the end into a scene of curiously Wagnerian redemption. One of the conquests has died of despair and, rather generously in the circumstances, offered her soul to save him. The result is that the "dissoluto" is not, after all, "punito" - leaving unsatisfied the High Moral desire for retribution, but reinforcing the reason that makes Giovanni/Juan such an uncomfortably attractive character: he does what we'd all like to do (given the chance), and gets away with it.

The Proms this week continued their torrent of new works, the most immediately attractive of them being Thomas Ades's ... But All Shall Be Well. This 10-minute orchestral "consolation" (the composer's words) is intricately scored, but open-handed in its appeal, and the first of Ades's scores I've heard to trump technical brilliance with a real, unaffected emotional statement. Not that this is heart-on-sleeve emotionality: the writing is considered, elegantly Brittenesque, with a refined feeling for texture. But it also communicates something more than the purse-lipped, decorative camp of some of Ades's more recent work (the score was written in 1993, although this was its London premiere), and I found it genuinely affecting. As was the performance by the Halle Orchestra under Kent Nagano. The Halle is an orchestra in difficulties: struggling to reduce a large deficit by programming more popular concerts and thereby antagonising its own conductor, Nagano, who is too serious a musician to want to run an orchestra whose standard repertoire re- quires cannon effects. This Prom, which prefaced the Ades with Webern and followed it with Mahler, was a sort of mission statement; and if it didn't prove the Halle to be wholly world- class at the moment, it was still very credible. Nagano is an asset to Manchester's musical life. The city should be careful not to lose him.

'Don Giovanni': Glyndebourne, 01273 812321, continues tonight, Tues & Fri; and C4, 5.30pm 27 Aug. 'The Real Don Juan': New End, NW3, 0171 794 0022, to 20 Aug.