Don Giovanni, Garsington House, Oxford

Another serving of summer opera magic

Roderic Dunnett
Thursday 04 July 2002 00:00
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What an operatic joy the month of June proved. Glyndebourne unveiled Richard Jones's spellbinding Euryanthe; Phyllida Lloyd's Macbeth at and Domingo in The Queen of Spades at Covent Garden; Ravel's L'Enfant for Opera North, Jones's gripping Lulu and Pountney's The Fairy Queen for ENO. Just one of these in a four-week span would have been riches indeed.

In the eminently sensible hands of its conductors Steuart Bedford and Elgar Howarth, Leonard Ingrams's summer operafest continues to work the magic. Howarth has graduated from rare Strauss to Garsington's scintillating double-bill of Janacek's Sarka and Osud. Bedford, who has overseen virtually all Garsington's recent Mozart – Idomeneo, Così, Lucio Silla, Magic Flute – here delivers a feast of well-driven recitative and aria alike, in which the Guildhall Strings-enhanced orchestra and the plangent cello continuo of Jane Fenton do Mozart proud.

There are half a dozen lit Commendatores abreast of Garsington's ornamental lily pond – by a nice quirk, the designer, Jackie Brooks, echoes them in the plinth from which the grim old battler (capably intoned by Brindley Sherratt) accepts his dinner invitation via a shivering Leporello (Robert Poulton, Garsington's erstwhile Falstaff, as comically inventive as Mr Punch and in terrific voice). Not everyone was entranced by the bleak beige timbers of Brooks's boxed-in, mirrored set (with a largely beige Euryanthe, this was opera's sepia week). I liked it: it concentrates the mind on the music, and plays up a doll-like Commedia dell'Arte element in the characters.

Tom Erik Lie, the Norwegian baritone, made a sympathetic Storch last year in Strauss's Intermezzo. As the Don he exhibits a little too much Drottningholm-like aristocratic poise: the ever-knowing Poulton would have brought a great deal more wink-wink raunchiness to the role. But Lie sings beautifully, with a pleasant tenory edge to the tone in upper registers, albeit shedding some tone and focus sotto voce, leaning overmuch on certain notes and momentarily flattening in "Deh, vieni". His Don was, if not rakish, pleasantly louche and dandy-like. Lie's repartee with Leporello (including the guzzling duet) positively sizzled.

The evening's showpiece, arguably, was Elvira's pathos-ridden "Mi tradi", added for the Salieri pupil Katharina Cavalieri when Giovanni progressed from Prague to Vienna: an absolute showstopper here, with Emma Bell, slightly thick-toned and wide-vibratoed earlier on, coming movingly and lucidly into her own, deftly negotiating Elvira's tricky chromatic coloratura.

Another treat was Finnur Bjarnason, Glyndebourne's Don Ottavio, stepping in for Paul Nilon: poised, sophisticated and refined, straight out of Jane Austen, and with an appealing high register that served "Il mio tesoro" exquisitely.

Franzita Whelan's Donna Anna produced an initially scatty vibrato, with some dicey coloratura: far better her "Non mi dir", which she delivered charmingly, with gorgeous contributions from bassoon, flute and clarinet (terrific for Poulton's sortie into the audience) alike. Bedford elicited a clutch of nicely balanced ensembles; and every trio worked. Even (maybe especially) from the back, the voices came across superbly. Carl Gombrich, slighty underdirected, made a gutsy Masetto; Michelle Walton a fruity Zerlina.

Garsington Opera performs 'Don Giovanni' in concert at the Barbican Hall, London EC2, 18 & 20 July

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