Don Giovanni

I’ve always disliked the idea that a production of something, whether it be a play, opera or symphony, ‘should’ be a certain way. The exciting appeal of watching a new staging or production or anything is that there can be scope for innovation and freshness within it, and that a fine director or conductor can make their mark in a unique and thrilling way. Then of course there are the examples of equally talented artists putting ‘their stamp’ on a work and it not only coming across as misjudgement of the material, but show-off arrogance.

The day after watching the ENO’s new production of Don Giovanni, directed by Rufus Norris, I am still unsure as to whether it’s a brilliant re-evaluation of the opera as the blackest of black comedies or an absolutely travesty of the original. It’s probably my favourite opera, partly because I believe the score to be the finest ever composed but also because I’ve always adored the way that it alternates – sometimes in the same scene – between comedy and tragedy, achieving a kind of Shakespearean breadth of emotional states.

What’s so unusual about Norris’ staging is that the tragic aspects of the opera are all but ignored in favour of increasingly farcical adventures.  These are first hinted at when Iain Paterson’s superbly sung but somewhat low-key – a lecher rather than a libertine – Don Giovanni first appears in the overture, accompanied by Brindley Sherratt’s shambling Leporello, a dead ringer for David Threlfall in Shameless. They reach their peak in pure knockabout comedy in the second act when John Molloy’s Masetto, declaring the Don to be ‘the bastard to end all bastards’ ends up having a large fork rammed into his posterior, declaring ‘Oooh, my arse!’ Here, as elsewhere, Jeremy Sams’ translation makes up for in humour what it lacks in sophistication. The overall effect is vaguely disconcerting, a bit like watching a mash up of Macbeth and Carry On Screaming, complete with Gilbert and Sullivan-esque banter.

Musically it’s fine but undistinguished under Kirill Karabits’ conducting, with the best music, as ever, reserved for the finale in which the Don descends to hell, although here, as elsewhere, Norris adopts some curious directorial decisions and makes it appear as if he is electrocuted on the giant pylons that orbit the stage. (The set design, by Ian MacNeil is, presumably intentionally, horribly ugly.) I enjoyed this production immensely, far more than some more po-faced and accomplished ones I’ve seen, but I honestly couldn’t say that this was intentional or not. One’s thing for certain, the famous ‘catalogue’ scene will never quite make me think of a spreadsheet ever again.

 

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