It was an 'I was there' night at Glyndebourne, though from the pre-show announcement you'd never have known it. The company's messenger of death merely informed us that Duncan Rock and his understudy were both ill, and that Jacques Imbrailo had agreed to sing the title role.
What she didn't say was that the baritone had woken up expecting a quiet rest between performances of The Pearl Fishers, that he hadn't sung Don Giovanni in three years apart from one scorebound concert performance, and that he was unfamiliar with Glyndebourne's technically complex Jonathan Kent production.
The audience wouldn't have known any of that as the show started, and three hours later they'd have been none the wiser. After a hasty session of blocking and fight work, and helped by discreet on- and offstage nursemaiding, Imbrailo aced it. With consummate stage awareness, musicianship and skill, he turned every singer's worst nightmare into the stuff of dreams. To witness it was a privilege.
It's unclear whether conductor Pablo González was thrown by events or whether his reading of the score is always this sluggish, but I willed him to open the throttle in some arias, notably Don Ottavio's "Dalla sua pace". (Anthony Gregory, his tenor timbre more luscious and mature than ever, was deprived of his second showpiece aria, "Il mio tesoro". Why do directors persist in stripping down rather than fleshing out this already underwritten character? It's one of life's mysteries.)
Taken as a whole, this is the best cast I've yet heard in the Kent production and I only regret not hearing Duncan Rock's take on the Don. With Andrii Goniukov a splendidly baleful Commendatore, and Louise Alder and Božidar Smiljanić a deliciously dysfunctional Zerlina and Masetto, both singing beautifully while she manipulates him and he traduces her, there is not a weak link.
Ana Maria Labin and Magdalena Molendowska are nicely contrasted as Donnas Anna and Elvira respectively: the former limpid and expressive, the latter loud and clear, and both earning rousing applause.
Hunky baritone Brandon Cedel has moved up from Masetto (in 2014) to Leporello and is, I imagine, a good physical match for Rock under normal circumstances, even though Kent shows scant interest in his character. The smooth-voiced Cedel has the comic measure of the role and, incidentally, he supported Imbrailo to a fault as he negotiated designer Paul Brown's tall box revolve. By the great climactic scene they were a full-blown double act.
Lloyd Wood, whose own five-star Don Giovanni for English Touring Opera has been a highlight of the year so far, has diligently revived Kent's opus for the second time. A mention in dispatches, too, for Keith Benson's fluid revival of Mark Henderson's lighting whose ever-changing interaction with Brown's contoured walls accentuates the production's sense of movement.
But the evening was all about the buzz of Imbrailo and his ad hoc Don. Caught between a Rock and a hard place, he never once seemed to be winging it. Flying, more like.
Don Giovanni, starring Duncan Rock, runs at Glyndebourne until 4 November, then tours to Milton Keynes, Canterbury, Norwich, Woking and Plymouth until 10 December.