Don Giovanni, Glyndebourne

It was not perfect; perfection we leave for Mozart. But Kent’s staging, as revived by Lloyd Wood — I am afraid I am in no position to say how much is Kent and how much is Wood — treats this masterpiece seriously and joins a select group of
productions I should happily see again, not least because I suspect there would
be intriguing points revealed to me that I had missed upon a first viewing.
(Incidentally, its Glyndebourne predecessor, from Graham Vick, forms part of
that small band.)

Kent’s staging may lack the cocaine-fuelled kinetic energy of Calixto
Bieito’s unforgettable ENO production, or the (apparently) all-encompassing,
CalderÛn-like Salzburg World Theatre of Herbert Graf’s production for
Furtw‰ngler (the most precious opera DVD this side of the Boulez-ChÈreau
Ring?), but even such magnificent achievements as those can only begin
to hint at the possibilities Mozart and Da Ponte offer us. Most stagings come
nowhere near accomplishing even that. Social tensions are either absent or
underplayed — an all too common shortcoming — but a seriousness and
sensibility it is perhaps not unduly exaggerated to call theological
nevertheless comes to the fore. Giovanni’s unflinching, libertine atheism is
of course the true heroism of the opera. The dark force of what to him may be
reaction is symbolised by the darkness of Paul Brown’s excellent set designs,
from out of which the action seems to emerge and into which it retreats. But
some in the audience — and some of the characters too — might equally
decide that it is the temporal stability of the revolving cube (the Mother
Church, perhaps?) which protects and which ultimately proves the villain’s

Such openness to interpretation is quite different from a lack of direction.
There is room for the burning conviction of strong directorial lines — Bieito
is surely one of the greatest and unquestionably one of the most celebrate
examples — and for more reticent yet nevertheless intelligent productions,
permitting of various understandings. In that respect, Kent’s likening, in
his brief director’s note, of Brown’s spinning cube to ‘a kind of Cabinet
of Curiosities or, perhaps, a great sarcophagus,’ proves fruitful both in
itself and for the further consideration it might suggest. Moreover, such
properly Baroque references, in a more broadly cultural sense rather than the
narrow conceptions of ‘style’ prevalent today, prove equally stimulating to
the imagination — just as they do in Mozart’s score and Da Ponte’s
libretto. The 1950s updating registers if one wishes: Kent suggests a ‘time
of transition, in which a sexual, social and moral revolution, a dolce
world, coexisted with the remnants of a devout society. However, at
least to my eyes, it does not force itself unduly upon one’s consciousness.
The staging is again, then, suggestive; it does not make the mistake of trying
to shoehorn the drama into a pointlessly narrow conception, let alone somehow
attempt to make Don Giovanni ‘about’ the era in question.

There remains, however, one significant reservation. I do not know whose
decision it was to serve up what seemed pretty much to be the Vienna version of
the score, but I wish he or she had thought again; it made a change, though,
from the unholy conflation of Vienna and Prague generally foisted upon us. To
anyone who cares to think about it, Prague wins every time, although I have yet
to attend a single performance in which Mozart’s dramatic sensibility is thus
honoured. At any rate, we heard both of Donna Elvira’s arias, just the one of
Don Ottavio’s (‘Dalla sua pace’), and the very rare Vienna duet for
Zerlina and Leporello, ‘Per queste tue manine’. It was not, of course,
uninteresting to hear the latter, for once, but it is almost unworthy of late
Mozart, and holds up the action just as much as if we were to hear both of
Ottavio’s arias (and/or, for that matter, both of Elvira’s: just as much a
problem with Vienna). There was, at least, no messing about with the scena
— a relief, given the recent
butchery perpetrated by the Royal Opera
. It was a great pity, though, about
the surtitles, whose translation was unworthy of Da Ponte’s matchless
marriage of wit and profundity.

Orozco-Estrada’s Mahler
I greatly admired in Vienna a year-and-a-half
ago. At first, that is, in the Overture, I found him somewhat wanting in
Mozart. I have learned to live with the opening being taken at an allegedly
alla breve tempo far too fast to my ears; off the top of my head, only
Barenboim and Muti, amongst living conductors, come close to what I hear in my
head. More concerning were a general thinness of tone and apparent lack of
concern with harmonic rhythm. If those were not actually natural trumpets — I
could not see the pit — they certainly sounded like them; others, of course,
respond better to that rasping sound than I do. However, once past that
disappointing opening, there was much to admire, though such tendencies were
far from entirely banished. There will always be tempi with which one can
quibble, but this was a variegated performance which did not harry the music,
and which permitted both the on-stage drama to develop and the excellent London
Philharmonic Orchestra to have its say. The Stone Guest Scene, however, was
strangely un-climactic: partly, I think, a matter of the failure to use the
Prague score, but it was more than that, for that failing is common to many
other performances. Though beautifully played by the LPO and — for the most
part — well sung, the final scene therefore did not jolt quite as it should.

Indeed, the main factor was probably the underpowered singing of Taras
Shtonda’s Commendatore. The other disappointment amongst the cast was Layla
Claire’s vibrato-laden Donna Anna, whose musical line really needed to be
clearer throughout. Otherwise, a cast almost entirely unknown to me acquitted
itself well, with a fine sense of company. Ben Johnson, whom I had heard before
as Ottavio, albeit in English, sang exquisitely, almost to the extent of having
one regret the lack of ‘Il mio tesoro’. Serena Farnocchia was a stylish
Elvira, whilst Lenka M·?ikov· and Brandon Cedel offered vocally lively
assumptions of the roles of Zerlina and Masetto. If Elliot Madore lacked the
charisma of the great Giovannis, then he nevertheless delighted in the
musico-dramatic quicksilver of the role, sufficiently differentiated from the
equally lively Leporello of Edwin Crossley-Mercer. There was genuine chemistry
between them. Perhaps ironically, given the ‘loss’ of his aria, it was only
Johnson’s Ottavio which continued to ring in my ears; but this, like the
production and performance as a whole, was a cast that proved considerably
greater than the sum of its parts.

Mark Berry

Cast and production information:

Leporello: Edwin Crossley-Mercer; Donna Anna: Layla Claire; Don
Giovanni: Elliot Madore; Commendatore: Taras Shtonda; Don Ottavio: Ben Johnson;
Donna Elvira: Serena Farnocchia; Zerlina: Lenka M·?ikov·; Masetto: Brandon
Cedel. Director: Jonathan Kent; Revival director: Lloyd Wood; Designs: Paul
Brown; Movement: Denni Sayers; Lighting: Mark Henderson. The Glyndebourne
Chorus (chorus master: Jeremy Bines)/London Philharmonic Orchestra/AndrÈs
Orozco-Estrada (conductor). Glyndebourne Festival Theatre, Saturday 7 June

image_description=A scene from Don Giovanni [Photo by Robert Workman]
product_title=Don Giovanni, Glyndebourne
product_by=A review by Mark Berry
product_id=Above: A scene from Don Giovanni [Photo by Robert Workman]