A wonderful thing, the human subconscious. Mine has the happy knack of obliterating ugly memories from the past; but, for some reason, in the case of Rufus Norris’s 2010 hatchet job on Don Giovanni it’s made a howling, knuckle-gnawing exception. I still bear the scars of its awfulness.
This production became a byword for operatic inanity and an encapsulation of English National Opera’s artistic malaise at the time. Now, in what amounts to an expensive middle-finger by the company to critical (and public?) opinion, it has returned; but in a form so heavily doctored by Norris that what was once a nightmare is now little more than a weird dream, inoffensive and quickly forgotten in the cold light of day.
It’s better than it was, then, but still no cigar. We’ve lost the Don’s ridiculous skirt, all but one of the Jesus T-shirts, all but the feet of Don Ottavio’s striptease and – praise be – all the stuff about electricity, including the silly power cables that previously loomed over the stage. These have been replaced by… well, not very much at all. Where once there was character, albeit of a twisted, wrong-headed kind, now there is nothing. Like the troublesome McMurphy at the end of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Norris’s production has been lobotomised.
At least this time round Mozart’s score survives the ordeal. Edward Gardner takes it by the scruff of the neck from the opening bar and muscles everyone through its pages, singers and musicians alike, with fabulous élan. The absence (as so often) of the aria ‘Il mio tesoro’ from Act Two is regrettable because Ben Johnson is a fine Don Ottavio and the production gives him so little else to do, but there can be few other quibbles about the musical choices.
Designer Ian McNeil’s floating stage elements are as ugly as ever, and their modest height (two metres at best) leaves a void of blackness between the set and the high surtitles. There is a satisfying kinetic interest, though, in the interplay between the players and their restless environment, while Finn Ross’s projections during Leporello’s Catalogue aria are witty partners to Jeremy Sams’s free English rendering of Da Ponte’s libretto.
Iain Paterson sang the title role with such transparency and tonal beauty that he was able to shrug off the charisma-free interpretation foisted upon him by the director. Darren Jeffery’s Baldrick of a Leporello, by contrast, was stronger on physical horseplay than vocal horsepower. Sarah Redgwick sang extravagantly well as a thwarted, sexually needful Donna Elvira, as did Sarah Tynan and John Molloy as Zerlina and Masetto – even though vulgarity eclipses imagination in Norris’s depiction of their stormy relationship. Only Katherine Broderick seemed ill-at-ease, her Donna Anna static and expressionless with an unforgiving timbre that leapt to an unpleasant fff under pressure.
The arrival of the Stone Guest during the final scenes, with Matthew Best an ideal Commendatore, is a cleverly executed piece of direction that packs a powerful punch. Was it done that way in 2010? I don’t recall. Perhaps by then my own punch was too drunk to care.
- Mark Valencia