Glyndebourne’s suave Don Giovanni

A fabulous 50th birthday trip for my partner and some select friends to Glyndebourne, to see the new production of Don Giovanni. Broadly, very good. Not perfect, but very good.

Jonathan Kent’s production had things updated to somewhere around the 1950s (judging by the Marilyn Monroe effect applied to Zerlina) and to Italy, if Masetto was anything to go by.  Don G spent most of the time in a white tux, and Donna Anna and Donna Elvira wore various chic numbers of the period.

The production revolves around a much-revolving tall box, which initially turns slowly during the overture, revealing sides that are alternately large white gloss brick and either an ornate classical portico or a full-height portrait in ‘Old Master’ style of a woman reclining.  Through the evening, this box spins to different angles and is opened out into a myriad different spaces and shapes.  The effect is impressive, and there are no end of interesting tableaux possible.  Act 2 sees a slightly more decrepit – and, for the actors, perilous – version of the cube in play.  The final dinner scene was played at a dramatic angle, rising up away from the audience with Don G’s seat at the table high up at the back of the stage.  The table was upturned by Don G, revealing the Thriller-esque grave from which the Commendatore would rise to initiate vengeance.

If the spaces were interesting, then, what of what went on in them?  One notable oddity was that the end of Act 1 took place amidst more fire than I think I can recall seeing on a stage in a long time, with fire bolts shooting in and the Don’s ballroom generally becoming a blaze, with him standing in the middle of it as the huge doors closed to shield him from the vengeful other characters.  It came as some surprise then – not to say, disappointment – that the Act 2 close involved no fire whatsoever, merely a very realistic tussle between the Commendatore and the Don, and then him gently sliding into the ground on a very evident hydraulic platform.  It felt like cheating…

As is to be expected at Glyndebourne, all of the characters were detailed and well-rehearsed.  I’m not convinced that the basic premise quite came off overall, but there were some wonderful moments.  In particular, I was struck by Donna Anna becoming a rounded character where often she is oddly stuck between raging vengeance and a sort of droopy grief, out of which arises no very convincing character.  Anna Samuil, however, brought something very real and detailed to the performance that lifted it into something special.  Her voice started a little woolly, but achieved focus quite quickly after the first scene, revealing a big, meaty sound that was thrilling in places.  Her coloratura close to Non mi dir was the vocal high point of the evening for me.

Kate Royal didn’t quite do it for me as Donna Elvira, sounding too soft and warm for this, usually, more strident character.  I understand this character even less than Donna Anna normally, and Royal wasn’t able to shine any new light on what keeps her going after Giovanni. Perhaps there simply is no light to be shone in that department?

Leporello was given lively presence by Luca Pisaroni, with the requisite comedic tics all neatly integrated into a convincing character: genuinely disapproving of his masters antics, and yet stuck for alternatives.  He sang the catalogue aria well, with a bit of mild harrassment of Donna Elvira thrown in for good measure.   Keeping on the below-stairs theme, the Zerlina of Anna Virovlansky was pert, bright, lively and sang with fabulous projection and ease that made this character again a bit more than the usual secondary actor.  Her partner – the Masetto of Guido Loconsolo – achieved the same by force of acting (and a dash of looks) rather than by voice, which didn’t make quite the same impression.

And so to the Don himself.  Gerald Finley is a seasoned performer of the role, and in this production he prioritised suavity over force, which gave the Don an oddly secondary role.  It was as if he was the victim of circumstance, and all he wanted to do was have his fun, but everyone around him was making it complicated.  This made for an interesting effect at the end, when genuinely he seemed shrunken before the Commendatore and the divine judgments that he was delivering.  However, it didn’t quite fit my preconceptions of the character as being the main mover of the drama, so there were a few moments when things seemed lacking: at the party with the masqueraders, for example.  That’s not to say that, taken on its merits, Finley’s Don wasn’t impressive: it was well-sung, and alive with all the details that Finley always brings to a role.  He is a tremendously impressive singer/actor, but just on this one outing the whole thing didn’t quite do it for me.  Others may disagree…?

Vladimir Jurowski had given way in the pit to Jakub Hruša, who led the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment in a sharp, lively account of the score.  The start of each act was an impressive coup de théatre all of its own, especially the very opening.  He had quietly assumed his position on the podium, and the audience were still nattering away about how well seasoned were their smoked salmon canapés, or the relative merits of Prosecco or Crémant, or whatever the usual Glyndebourne conversation consists of.  Then suddenly, in one move, that first, fatal chord, complete with the quenching of all house lights (including emergency exit lights and those in the pit).  It was a fabulous way to begin and ensured near-silence for the overture, as people took in the shock.  The playing was tremendous, as to be expected from the OAE, and the drums in the descent to hell deserve particular note for their fearsome attack.  It was just a shame there was no fire to go with it.

And that’s Glyndebourne over for another year, which brings to a close the 2009/10 opera year.  Phew.

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