The Royal Opera House's 2008/9 season opener was always an exciting prospect: Don Giovanni, conducted by one of the finest Mozartians around, Charles Mackerras, and with Simon Keenlyside as the Don. It did not disappoint.
It occurred to me that this is now the opera I have seen live most times (edging above the many that tie on two performances, such as Don Carlos, Vec Makropulos, Figaro, Rheingold and Walkure). The first time I saw it was with Opera North (I think, though it may possibly have been English Touring Opera) in Norwich in 2005. That was an excellent production, slightly modern with a large scaffold that allowed plenty of chasing and people not running into one and other, as the script often requires. It also didn't get in the way of the story. Next up was a dire attempt that represented yet another nail in Scottish Opera's coffin. The team of conductor Richard Armstrong and director Tim Albery who'd brought such success to the Ring should have ensured success. They didn't. The production was so poorly lit throughout that nothing was visible much of the time (most so in the party in the Don's house where, rather than suspend disbelief they'd gone for a level of illumination authentic to what candles might have provided). Then there was the Don constantly discarding pairs of white gloves, doubtless to represent the women he deflowered. But it just looked very silly indeed. In the pit Armstrong was somewhat beyond leaden.
Things last night were better, much better. From the opening bars of the overture the orchestral playing is superb, and superbly directed by Mackerras. The curtain rose to reveal a slightly odd set, dominated by a large, curved truck that was clearly meant to be the outside of a large house, actually not a million miles from Opera North in effect. The production isn't new, and dates from 2002. The wall opens out and Keenlyside athletically clambers down having attempted to ravage Donna Anna. Keenlyside is superb as the Don - incorrigible, caring about nobody but himself. I wasn't overly impressed by Marina Poplavskaya when she sang Elizabeth in Don Carlos and she is fairly unremarkable here. Then the Commendatore enters and Eric Halfvarson is every bit as impressive as he was as the Grand Inquisitro. Joyce DiDonato is a beautiful and convincing Elvira, not always the easiest role to carry off, particularly as to why she is so forgiving of the Don, but DiDonato manages it. Kyle Ketelsen is a good Leporello, but plays a little too much for laughs. I've still seen nothing to compare with the way Opera North's performance gave me a genuine sense of a man conflicted, this Leporello seemed merely out to save his skin. Ramon Vargas sings nicely enough as Ottavio but is a little wooden in his acting and lacks a little bite. Elsewhere, the Zerlina of Miah Persson is mesmerising and Robert Gleadow's Masetto is good. The simplicity of their costumes also contrasts well with the Dons and Donnas and gives a nice homely feel.
It's worth noting at this point that midway through the run the cast switches for a less impressive one on paper and Poppano takes over as conductor. That said, Rebecca Evans' Zerlina will be interesting to see. The only really big name in the second half is Ian Bostridge who takes over Ottavio. Now, I'm most grateful he wasn't onstage for me as I cannot bear to watch a man who constantly looks for all the world like he is about to be sick quite violently, and provokes a similar reaction in me. But can it be coincidence that he and Mackerras are not together? I think I'm correct in saying the two haven't worked together since Bostridge dropped out of recording sessions for Clemenza di Tito and the subsequent 2005 Edinburgh Festival concert, throwing them into doubt. Thankfully Reiner Trost stepped in at the last minute.
The production did well bringing out humour in the score, not least from Keenlyside and Ketelsen's wonderful range of expressive sighs and grunts. However, towards the close of act one, we got our first clue that director Francesca Zambello may have misplaced the plot somewhere along the way. Having surrounded the Don, Anna, Elvira and Ottavio put a gun to his head, and then do nothing for no apparent reason, enabling him to escape by climbing up the wall on a rope which the band throw down to him, clearly they are anxious to ensure they are still paid (the set by this point having revolved completely so we are within the house). Indeed, there is more of the same when they capture Leporello in act two, as he impersonates the Don, a noose is dramatically tied, and then used only to tie him up. The words of Dr Evil "I'm going to place him in an overly elaborate and easily escapable trap..... what?" sprang to mind. However, for some reason that isn't clear the walls close in on everybody. There is, though, some nice acting from the onstage musicians who duck for cover at the first sign of trouble and then peek back over the parapet.
More comedy is to follow in the second half, with Leporello's disguise as the Don carried off especially well. Mackerras's conducting remains on fire. There is a rightness to his choices of tempo and, as always, solid support for his singers. Sadly the director goes on to lose the plot completely. A crack opens in the wall to reveal a bizarre shape which defies accurate description (a tube-shaped thing but not entirely solid - writing in the Guardian, Erica Jeal suggests it is the Commendatore's finger, if she says so) which swings back and forth but is clearly meant to represent the Commendatore's statue. When Leporello mimes that it is nodding his simply looks ridiculous. However, his terror at having to invite it to dinner is well conveyed. Things take a turn for the worse as we enter the Don's dining room (which has a look completely out of kilter with the traditional setting of the rest - a series of oddly shaped tables that wouldn't be out of place in a pretentious modern restaurant). For some reason that never becomes clear, unless it is to show of Keenlside's rippling torso, it is the Don's custom to strip to his boxer shorts when expecting company for dinner. There are still some sparks, humour is found at the Figaro tune from the onstage band (though not as well as Opera North who ad libbed about that hack Mozart) and Leporello's theft of some food from the Don's table. All well and good, but I had lingering doubts as to what would happen when the weird swinging thing came knocking at the door, which it weirdly did. Fortunately Halfvarson then rose through the Don's table with a metallic hand. Then cue fire, and frankly very impressively so. Huge tongues of flame licked upwards from the various tables, though the roman candles being used burnt out in turn, which did seem a little odd. Halfvarson did not memorise the order though, as his gestures to the various tables did not match the fires starting. And then, a weird thing that looked like a slightly hollowed out head of the golden condor from The Mysterious Cities of Gold swung across the stage spurting a bit more flame as Keenlyside's obstinate Don was dragged down to some applause. Musically, it was stunning and I suppose it was fairly spectacular. I wasn't quite sure though, if some thought that was the end there.
The curtain then dropped and the remaining leads, having quickly changed their cloths to white (were they purified by the Don's demise?), appeared before it to sing of the morals of the tale. For the first few minutes I wondered why Mozart hadn't had the sense to stop with the dramatic finale, but then Mackerras brought out the music of the lessons to be learnt so beautifully that I remembered why. Zambello had saved her final insanity for the end, the curtain fell away revealing the house wall with a red gap in which Keenlyside stands, stark naked, carrying a woman, possibly the maid he serenaded earlier, such as to conceal his modesty. Why? Surely at this point he is in hell, and if that means beautiful women are provided to him, surely the Devil needs to have serious words with some of his minions.
There were one or two other irritations. Despite having got an ideal seat on the aisle, in the front row of the amphitheatre it was slightly spoilt by a gentleman next to me who was a little too large for his seat, and a couple behind who insisted on talking and kicking my
seat (though most of the talking stopped after I glared in the overture). Clearly the man was tall and therefore was constantly shifting his legs. However, I'm tall and I manage not to kick people's seats. He eventually moved to sit on the steps just before the interval. The usher came to ask him to move, without even bothering to try to lower his voice. I expect that of the ushers at the Festival Theatre, not at Covent Garden, who are normally excellent (and have a correctly cast iron policy on latecomers).
Still, such irritations shouldn't detract from what was a superbly enjoyable evening. Mackerras showed an absolute mastery of the score and kept a brisk pace, though in common with recent performances his age now seems to be bringing a slight slowing (from a pace that rose steadily all the way up until his 2006 Beethoven cycle). By comparison, his Scottish Chamber Orchestra recording of 1995 feels brisker, but this felt righter somehow.
It is a superb evening at the opera and thoroughly to be recommended if you can track down a ticket, though the long returns line indicates this may be tricky. And while at times the production grates, closing of eyes is, for the most part, not required. It was broadcast live to cinemas on opening night and the cameras last night suggest an Opus Arte DVD is to follow, which I will acquire for the music if not the staging.