What a frustrating show. Perhaps frustration is a suitable theme for an opera about the dangers of seeking to satisfy your every desire, but this version of Mozart and Da Ponte’s classic is nail-bitingly close to being interesting, only to let us down at nearly every turn.
The promise begins with director Richard Jones’ fascinating dumbshow playing out over the overture. The Don stands before a door in a faceless corridor with a procession of women coming past him, each hesitating before turning back and entering the door with him. Each tryst lasts only seconds, with each woman mechanically replaced by the next, and no sign of pleasure on the seducer’s (Christopher Purves) face. This tantalising insinuation of sex addiction and the emptiness at the heart of male sexuality is, however, not successfully followed up.
Part of this is down to a lack of commitment to any one direction. The set, designed by Paul Steinberg, is a case in point: the vast, featureless khaki walls have dystopian overtones without this being much referenced in the rest of the production, and the sense that the modular set might be part of some infinite maze or underground bunker loses its lustre quickly, ending up as simply dispiriting. It has more in common with badly-rendered 90s videogame corridors than it does with genuinely interesting set design.
Much of the fault can also be placed at the feet of the director. Never has this opera felt as episodic and narratively unsatisfying as here, especially in Act II when Da Ponte’s libretto draws out the less interesting characters’ scenes longer than even Mozart’s stunning music can sustain. The staging frequently leads to the kind of awkward wandering around during arias that speaks of a director who has lost focus or didn’t know what he wanted in the first place. Visual jokes that are clever on paper fizzle out thanks to a lack of discipline and focus. For a director of Jones’ calibre this is surprising, but it is possible he simply doesn’t like the opera that much.
This could also be true of Purves’ Don, who is simply too dour and predatory to have much charm as the greatest Lothario of all time. Even then, this production is not as dangerous as it should be: for all the Wanted posters and threats of sadomasochism, the imprecise use of the black-clad chorus is more school-play than scellerati. The translation by Amanda Holden doesn’t help by being piously literal. “Be still my trembling heart” might be a suitable translation for “mi trema un poco il cor”, but given its place in the greatest seduction music of all time, did it have to be so Mills and Boon?
The handling of music remains fine, and the cast give spirited performances (this may be the first time the thankless tenor role of Don Ottavio, played by a honey-voiced Alan Clayton, was the standout). It is also possible than further performances may improve a show that feels like something brilliant is struggling to get out – the final few minutes especially raise the hairs on the back of the neck with some extremely clever sleights of hand. But for the moment it is a little off-key.
Don Giovanni is playing at the Coliseum until 26 October. For tickets and information see the ENO website.
Photo: Robert Workman