It is rarely a good sign when one spends the overture at the opera trying to work out what on earth is going on on stage, and Rufus Norris's ENO Don Giovanni is no exception. We had what looked to me like two pieces of London Underground track with which various fluorescent jacketed men were fiddling (they may, or may not at this point have been wearing masks). Eventually, these (the girders not the men) rose upwards and a girl in a green dress wandered on. She was stopped (well I say stopped but this is one of the production's many unconvincing moments of movement) by these men, stripped of her dress which the Don then donned and off he went to rape Donna Anna.
This, believe it or not, is at the coherent end of the production's spectrum and from then on it goes steadily downhill. The root cause of this can be traced right back to the opening sexual act. If you decide that Donna Anna is to be raped before the intervention of the Commendatore, then you are also deciding that she is lying to Don Ottavio when she describes the scene later and you have to work out what her inner motivations are and how you are going to convey them. But this is just the very thing that Norris seems to have been completely incapable of doing. Instead, he has directed a series of individual numbers (and frankly there seems to have been little direction to most of those except that the protagonists should stand around dithering) which show a complete failure to think through what happens before and after. He has also taken the typical route of the director who is frightened by the music and filled up as many moments as possible with pointless business, balloons rise up and do a little dance in the scene between Elvira and the Don in Act One, the set whizzes around with pointless rapidity guided by an ensemble of demonic types who look as if they have got lost from the recent Faust, and the Act Two sextet is reduced to complete idiocy with Don Ottavio inexplicably undressing and Donna Anna doing some kind of crazed solo line dance. When we finally reach the lead-up to the descent into hell, Norris plays half-heartedly and ineffectively around with whether or not the Commendatore is visible to everybody, and has Iain Paterson writhing feebly and unconvincingly on the edge of a hole below which presumably is hell, before finally electrocuting him with a couple of feeble flashes from the gantry which turns out to have been hovering above the protagonists for this very purpose. Frightening it is not.
In the midst of this sadly only too typical silliness, the singers struggle manfully. But there is a further weak link here on which others have already commented. Iain Paterson sings very beautifully but his characterisation of the Don is all on the same level. In particular he never really convinced me as a menacing sexual predator. It was particularly baffling that there should have been any ambivalence in Donna Anna's reaction to her rape (another piece of Norris half-heartedness) given Paterson's ludicrous costuming in the scene. Perhaps the best one can say is that it is probably not completely Paterson's fault given the general lack of direction visible on stage.
Of the other singers the two standout performances are Brindley Sherratt's Leporello and Katherine Broderick's Donna Anna. The latter in particular really surprised me. I have not rated her highly on previous hearings, yet on this occasion her rich, full voice filled the Coliseum and enabled me, particularly if I closed my eyes, to go some way to believing in the anguish of the character. As Donna Elvira, Rebecca Evans also has some fine moments, but seemed to go a little sour at the end of her big Act Two aria, and just didn't quite have Broderick's effortless command. In fact overall, despite some bizarre things, like hampering poor John Molloy (Masetto) with what sounded like a Somerset accent to no obvious purpose – and oddly it only seemed to kick in once the Don had emphasised his class position, this is by far the strongest all round cast that the company has assembled so far this season.
Unfortunately, not only are they let down by Norris, but also by Kirill Karabits in the pit. Karabits seems to have garnered a considerable reputation since his assumption of the chief conductorship in Bournemouth, but on the strength of this evening it was hard to see why. The orchestra played superbly, but not unlike Laurence Cummings in the recent Radamisto, Karabits had a tendency to rush, meaning that the text lost point and emphasis, and he also struggled to bring out the depth in the more reflective moments. I didn't quite agree with the disgruntled audience member I heard muttering the overture had been the dullest he'd ever heard (Richard Armstrong in Scotland was infinitely worse musically), but, rather like the production the musical direction was too much on one level.
I have nothing against new directors coming to opera but I do have a passionate objection to directors in any forum who seem to be incapable of bringing out emotional depth in the characters and who seem determined to fight against the piece they are directing rather than enhancing it. That Norris should have failed here did not completely surprise me: I previously saw his revival of Cabaret which I also thought did nothing for the show (although he did of course there have the additional handicap of catastrophic choreographer Javier de Frutos). ENO's Don Giovanni survives this better than some because the music is so inherently wonderful and the performances so committed but it is still another disappointing Coliseum evening, and joins the litany of productions given under the present management which I have no desire to see a second time.