Don Giovanni/L’Olimpiade, Garsington Opera, Wormsley

 

Mozart’s Don Giovanni – epitomising what philosopher Michel Foucault has called ‘the sombre madness of sex’ – is a perennial enigma. One current view is that he’s gay, but director Daniel Slater offers a new idea.

After aggressively switching on the lights of a clinically neo-Bauhaus set, this Don (Grant Doyle) settles down to a dinner a deux with his Donna Anna (Natasha Jouhl), with both radiating a mixture of antagonism and attraction, and displaying such easy familiarity that it’s no surprise when he allows her to ritually tie him up. Aha! And when the Commendatore bursts in and starts to belabour him – prompting him to snatch a table knife and stab the old geezer in self-defence – we feel he’s less predator than victim of a sleazy entrapment.

But this poses an immediate dramatic problem: how can we square it with the searing grief and anger of the duet which follows? How can we square it, later on, with the deeply un-ironic pathos of Anna’s account of her rape? We can’t, because we’ve been shown it’s a pack of lies. But the flip-side of all this is a riveting evening, where the Commendatore is kept alive to pronounce judgment from the heavens, and where comedy breaks out in unexpected ways, with bondage and three-in-a-bed the improbable leitmotifs. I won’t unsportingly reveal the final twist of this story, but it has its own dramatic logic, as do many of Slater’s directorial touches; Callum Thorpe’s Masetto, for example, is a much more complex and interesting character than usual. Indeed, dramatically and musically there’s not a weak link in this chain. While Sophie Bevan delivers Elvira’s arias with magnificent rage, her sister Mary makes a bewitching Essex-girl Zerlina; the vocal splendour of Joshua Bloom’s Leporello is nicely complemented by Jesus Leon’s sweet tenor as Don Ottavio; conductor Douglas Boyd keeps things fizzing.

Vivaldi’s L’Olimpiade (**) may have topicality, but its flimsy plot renders it little more than a vocal showcase. Conducted by Laurence Cummings, a cast strong in baritones and countertenors is led by the American mezzo Emily Fons, distinguished by her burnished beauty of tone and unerring sense of style. But the laboured sight-gags of David Freeman’s charmless production, coupled with wintry conditions in Garsington’s semi-open-air theatre, turned the first night into an endurance test for all of us.

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