Don Giovanni was Kasper Holten’s first production at Covent Garden after becoming the company’s Director of Opera. A statement of intent then. Visually there are big ideas here, not least the full-sized house that rotates centre-stage to provide the setting. The action and characterisations are more conventional, but mostly effective. For this, the first revival, the company has hired in a cast of big names, even for the minor roles, and they all deliver. The conducting, by Alan Altinoglu, is patchy, and he doesn’t get the best of the orchestra, but the singers carry it, and offer an excellent evening of Mozart.
The staging employs state-of-the-art lighting effects that clearly have a great deal of potential. The rotating set is illuminated with graphic projections, which track the rotation so that they always appear static against the moving surfaces. No doubt a great deal of computer power goes into making this work. It’s an effective device, and much more so than the computer generated backdrop graphics pioneered by Robert LePage, because it marries the computer effects with the physical space. Holten, along with set designer Es Devlin and video designer Luke Halls, manage to avoid the results looking “experimental” and (almost) every effect is applied for a good dramatic reason. They sometimes go overboard with distorted perspective effects, but only ever for the span of an aria or so.
The staging works best in the upbeat ensemble scenes. The masked ball at the end of the first act is particularly effective, the guests all populating the house and mingling into the half light of the individual rooms. Bleakness and terror are more difficult to express here. When Leporello, disguised as the Don, is cornered by the lynch mob in the second act, it’s hard to feel that he is in any real danger. We don’t get much in the way of a graveyard either, just a bust representing the statue. And no dinner setting for the finale. (No Sextet at the end, incidentally, we just leave the Don in the darkness contemplating his fate.) But most of the scenes in this opera are ambiguous in their setting, or at least easily transportable, so the production has plenty of leeway. The production has had plenty of onscreen exposure – it has been on TV and DVD and this revival will be broadcast to cinemas – but the visuals are far more impressive live, not least for that interplay of the solid and the virtual enacted by the rotating set and the tracked projections.
Holten is more conventional with his Personenregie, but he’s keen to explore each of these conflicted characters, and for this revival (directed by Amy Lane) each of the singers has something valuable to offer. Tensions are clear from the outset, with the appearance of Leporallo. Holten seems intent on portraying him as a clown, but Alex Esposito projects too much dignity to ever seem just the victim. Christopher Maltman’s Don is a known quantity, and he certainly delivers here. The sheer power and richness of his voice allows him to effortlessly dominate proceedings. Not sure about the curly wig though, it makes him look like Jean-Claude Van Damme on those beer adverts.
He’s up against a formidable trio of ladies, and here again the casting is strong. Albina Shagimuratova doesn’t have the most beautiful voice as Donna Anna – it can sound brittle, especially at the top – but the sheer emotion of her singing is compelling. That’s just as well, given the amount of time Mozart and Da Ponte spend dwelling on her distress in the opening scenes, but she more than justifies the attention. Dorothea Röschmann does have a beautiful voice as Donna Elvira, and hers is arguably the standout performance of the show. The sheer technical perfection of her singing marks her out, but she presents a believable character too. There has been a lot of excited publicity from Russia in recent years about the up-and-coming soprano Julia Lezhneva, who makes her house debut here as Zerlina. She’s well-cast in the role, as the innocent who’s not as innocent as she first seems. Her voice is set a little low for the tessitura though, and some of the top notes were problematic. A good performance, but she won’t be erasing memories of Elizabeth Watts and her superlative rendition last time round any time soon.
Rolando Villazón hams it up as Don Ottavo, especially in the opening scene. But his star qualities quickly shine through, and he brings the house down with his big aria in the second act. What a contrast between Villazón’s mugging and the measured reserve of Nahuel Di Pierro as Masetto. It’s not a performance that commands attention in the same way, but it’s just as fine. And as the Commendatore, the huge-voiced Eric Halfvarson. Not much acting required from him, but it’s the voice that counts, and his vocal presence is extraordinary.
For all its strong casting, the performance felt loose musically, with continual ensemble problems, especially between the orchestra and the singers. Conductor Alain Altinoglu often set a different tempo to the soloist, especially in the faster music. Altinoglu takes a period performance approach to the orchestral part, with a small string section playing and little vibrato. That took the players out of their comfort zone, and they rarely sounded comfortable. That was a shame, but it detracted little from the impressive performances onstage. Not a perfect staging, then, but one wholly redeemed by committed performances from a top-flight cast.
This production will be transmitted live to cinemas on Friday 3 July and will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Monday 13 July at 7 pm.
(Photos : Bill Cooper)