I begin with a confession. As a Mozart enthusiast, I went to the ENO’s dress rehearsal of Don Giovanni …. and hated it! Two weeks later I went again to review it and it was superb. I will try to explain why the second visit made me change my mind – and why you should see this production if you possibly can.
Mozart and Da Ponte labelled this opera ‘dramma giocoso’. Over the years the way the Don is portrayed has swung between comic villain, tragic hero and vicious rapist – with many variants combining elements of all three. The redoubtable director of this version, Richard Jones, goes for comic drama with a vengeance. The bald Kojak-lookalike Don and his ginger-wigged straight-man servant, Leporello, are a real comedy double act. And some of the stage business verges on knockabout farce – Donna Elvira’s maid falls off the sofa in the course of indulging in phone sex. This is a world in which all women love a cad and just a sexy stare from the Don melts their morals. This is not a world view that I like but there is no point in denying that Jones’ brilliant production brings a powerful consistency of vision to the whole work. The stage action which takes place behind the glorious final ensemble as the surviving characters try to pin an unconvincing moral onto the story – the opera’s subtitle is “the reprobate punished” – gives a twist in the tail to the opera which is superbly in keeping with the production’s vision.
The music is wonderful. Conductor Mark Wigglesworth captures the full range of Mozart’s compelling creation. He has a gift for finding the right tempo for each singer but I must give him credit for enabling the best performance I have ever heard of the recitatives, so often the poor relation of the arias. Christopher Purves, taking obvious pleasure in the debauched style of this Don – for example, sniffing the air to smell out vulnerable women in his vicinity – brings conversational realism to the recitative without sacrificing the beauty of Mozart’s music. Clive Bayley’s brilliantly conceived Leporello, so like the Don when stripped of his wig that the disguise scenes are all too plausible, provides the ideal foil for his master – part accomplice and part victim.
There is not a weak link in the cast and I find it very hard to single out any of the five other leading singers. Even in an undignified – to put it mildly – position in the first scene, Caitlin Lynch as Donna Anna produces tones of sheer Mozartian beauty. Christine Rice, as an increasingly demented Donna Elvira, prowls around the stage singing superbly, even making sense of the problematic Mi Tradi aria. I won’t spoil the startling plot twists that make this Richard Jones’ version so exciting but they play out on a cleverly designed set of sliding panels and painted doors that allow for speedy transitions between scenes and help the action to speed along.
So why did I change my mind? Partly because the singing was so much better in the performance I saw – a warning to those of us who mistake dress rehearsals for the real thing. Partly because the action and the acting has, I think, settled into the polished final product. But mostly because I overcame my preconceptions about what Don Giovanni ought to be about. Deep down I don’t really like the message of this version but Jones, Wigglesworth, and the ENO team brought a coherence of interpretation and dramatic intensity that helped me to see this masterpiece in a new light. What more can a devotee of this Mozart and Da Ponte masterpiece ask for?