English National Opera, London Coliseum, November 13
Most people (at least in my experience) go to the Coliseum for the operas and the prices, not for the voices. This is not to put down the ENO performers, merely to confirm that the company has made its recent reputation not on the strength of famous artists but on adventurous repertory and distinctive styles of production. That the singers are often young and comparatively inexperienced is sometimes a bonus, sometimes a flaw.
Surprising, then, that the company's new Don Giovanni, heard at the third performance, is a pleasure to hear and a pain to watch. Kirill Karabits, the principal conductor of the Bournemouth Symphony, undertaking his first ENO assignment, produced a reading of the score that was efficient and brisk rather than romantic or indulgent. His tempos seemed quick but not excessively so, and he succeeded (with a rare lapse or two) in keeping his singers together even in the trickiest moments. Responsive to his lead, the orchestra sounded well rehearsed, although an ugly hiccup in the horns spoiled the ironic-noble opening of the great Act 2 sextet.
The cast was strong, especially for so familiar and demanding a score, and happily they behaved as if they were members of an ensemble. As Giovanni, Iain Paterson offered little glamour, either of person or voice, but he sang well, indeed more effectively than he had as Gounod's devil at the beginning of the season. Brindley Sherratt was a confident and world-weary Leporello. The other men were a notch less impressive. Robert Murray (Ottavio) acquitted himself nicely in ensembles and, though deprived of ‘Il mio tesoro', contributed a respectable ‘Dalla sua pace'. In his first ENO performances, John Molloy blustered appropriately and thus made a credible Masetto.
The women struck me as uncommonly strong, especially Katherine Broderick, making her ENO debut as Anna. She possesses a very large soprano which, if a bit unruly and occasionally glassy in the upper reaches, admirably met the considerable demands of the part. Ample of frame, she looked in the opening scene like a greater threat to Giovanni than he to her, but she carried herself with dignity and maintained a consistent sense of character. With Rebecca Evans felled by an infection, Elvira was taken by Sarah Redgwick, and a very convincing portrayal it was. Clad in a raspberry-coloured suit and wearing Ruby Wax hair and make-up, she appeared-appropriately-just a bit demented in the obsessive pursuit of her traditor. Sarah Tynan sang with charm and sweetness, although like most Zerlinas she had some trouble with the high passagework in ‘Batti, batti'. The artists sang their music to Jeremy Sams's cheeky translation, which I found entertaining and suitable, even the rewriting of the Catalogue aria to show monthly graphs of the boss's sexual activity. It caught the mordant humour of the dramma giocoso, although the attempt to get all solemn and profound in ‘Deh vieni alla finestra' was merely embarrassing.
The production? Ugh. Rufus Norris has not directed an opera before, and let's hope he doesn't direct any more. In a notable career in the theatre, he has deliberately avoided the classics, so why was he was attracted to or offered what we might call the operatic equivalent of Hamlet? The ENO programme book contains some trite photographs of barren urban spaces, probably to forecast the spiritual aridity the director sees in Giovanni and those around him. Modern blight also seems to have inspired Nicky Gillibrand in costuming Giovanni and Leporello, both of whom look like rubbish collectors; for most of the show Giovanni wears baggy trousers, trainers, a Jesus T-shirt, and sometimes a devil mask. The talented Ian MacNeil, often a working partner of the director, has designed a formidably ugly collection of ‘sets' that swing in and out and suggest plastic, sterile domestic spaces.
Violating the first rule of Directing 101-‘Don't Stage the Overture'-Norris has Giovanni rape a girl and steal her clothing and wig, leaving him cross-dressed and ready for action with Anna. (He should have kept that dress, which is more becoming than his regular costume.) All the directorial signals are crude. Masetto, for example, wears a £59 suit and constantly scratches his virilia to establish his lower-class origins. But this is about the only attempt at social differentiation, so vital a feature of Mozart's and Da Ponte's design. And things get stranger and stranger as the director runs out of ideas. During the stretta to the Act 2 sextet, everybody seems to flip out, Elvira flinging herself wildly about the stage, Ottavio stripping down to his smalls, and Anna unaccountably launching into something like a Michael Flatley-Riverdance impression. Don't ask me. According to Matt Wolf's programme interview with the production team, ‘So intent are Norris and MacNeil on narrative momentum that they have done some slight re-ordering of arias in the second act.' In other words, ‘Il mio tesoro' is out, Anna sings ‘Non mi dir' before the graveyard scene, and Elvira delivers ‘Mi tradì' after it. (For ‘intent ... on narrative momentum' read ‘hubristic'.) The final ‘banquet' consists of a couple of off-licence bags-no table, no spread, no candles, no nothing-from which Giovanni pulls bread rolls to fling at Elvira. Mozart's majestic, terrifying, complex ending is here simply a downer, so counter-textual as to be pointless. The epilogue is a relief in the wrong sense. Come back Calixto Bieito, all is forgiven!