Don Giovanni: The Opera
Heaven, London WC2, April 16
There’s some ironic satisfaction to be gained from arriving at a venue called Heaven to watch the most famous operatic descent into hell. But then there were ironies aplenty in Richard Crichton’s gender-bending production of Mozart’s opera, staged in one of the West End’s longest-running gay nightclubs. Billed as Don Giovanni: The Opera, this was more accurately Don Giovanni: The (Almost) Musical, or, to be even more explicit, Don Giovanni: The All-Singing, All-Coke-Snorting Extravaganza. Singers fell into two distinct voice-types. Several had clearly enjoyed operatic training; others would have sounded more at home in a different repertory, and with an amplificatory leg-up. Yet hybrid vocal casting was by no means the production’s most exotic feature.
Sung in Ranjit Bolt’s fast-and-loose English translation, and pruned back to a lean 90 minutes, the opera was transported to the club-land of 1987 London, its action unfolding across a series of raised platforms spread across the length of Heaven’s main dance floor. Alongside a park bench—‘Embankment’, according to the programme—and raft of fast-food-chain tables (apparently a Wimpy outlet), the walls provided more easily identifiable local colour, with political posters and West End adverts to get us in the mood. To one side, an alcove was well stocked with equipment needed for after-hours gatherings of a more specialist nature. In this setting, Giovanni (first name: Don) is a drug-peddling nightclub owner, every bit as lecherous as his traditional counterpart but now in pursuit of the city’s gay youth. It’s a conceit that leads to the production’s most obvious novelty: every other role has been gender-swapped and its voice-type inverted. So Leporello is reassigned as Don’s power-dressed (female) PA, Leo; the Donnas Anna and Elvira become tenor no-hopers Alan and Eddie; Zerlina is the Morrissey-lookalike Zac (another tenor); Ottavio and Masetto—thanks to some vagueness about previously closeted identities—are Olivia and Marina. Oh, and the Commendatore is weedy Alan’s overbearing mother, Petra (alto).
All this may strike some as a form of operatic purgatory all of its own, and there were certainly problems—not least that much of the score was left without sufficient sense of a bass line. That difficulty was only exacerbated by the drastically cut-down orchestral forces, which fielded only a bassoon, cello and double bass in the lower register. There were serious balance problems, too, with some of the singers struggling to project over even this instrumentation, and the gravitational centre of ensembles was awkwardly skewed. And yet it was by no means disastrous. Duncan Rock’s ‘Don’ was as vocally accomplished as one might expect from an ex-Jerwood Young Artist, his baritone rich and highly coloured (no projection issues here, at least). Dramatically, too, he easily dominated an opera now focused almost entirely on his personal exploits. For the rest, Helen Winter was a spirited Marina/Masetto and Stephanie Edwards a clear-voiced Olivia/Ottavio. Tamsin Dalley’s matriarch-cum-Commendatore also deserves mention as a performance against the odds: the registral transposition and her final entrance (bursting through a poster for Phantom of the Opera—geddit?) removed much chance of dramatic success; but she still managed to inject much-needed vocal gravitas.
(Continue reading in the June issue of Opera, subscribe here)