Nicholas Garrett's Don Giovanni is a lithe, wiry lothario who infects the stage like love's disease. In a vain attempt to avoid being contaminated by his squalid presence, the gentlemen take snuff and the ladies pop scented sweeties. To no avail, however: one a-tishoo and they all fall down.
Stephen Barlow's thoughtful production makes sense of the Don's excesses by placing him in Victorian England, complete with bobby on the beat and a Red Lion pub. Barlow depicts a prurient society where sexual repression is so powerful that once passions do break the surface they erupt with ferocity and ruthlessness – hence the Don's perverted attitude to women.
The self-absorption of this anti-hero is strikingly portrayed in the gallery of paintings – all of the man himself, all identical – that line his world. At the opera's climax these portraits are cleverly subverted by Barlow and his designer, Yannis Thavolis, in a psychologically thrilling encounter with the Stone Guest (the ghost of the Commendatore, father of Don Giovanni's most devout conquest, Donna Anna) over which I shall draw a veil, for fear of spoiling anyone's enjoyment. Suffice to say that it's a chilling moment of schizoid retribution, and it crowns a particularly rich visual interpretation of Mozart's opera.
If the staging is a strength, the musical side does not always match it. The conductor, Robert Dean, takes a classically correct approach to the score; but although his speeds are secure, his sense of pace (not always the same thing) is sometimes undramatic. As the reading beds in he will, one hopes, bend more to the characters' emotions and allow his singers a greater degree of interpretational freedom.
The pick of the onstage performers are the betrothed couple, Zerlina and Masetto (Claire Wild and Robert Winslade Anderson). Their mellifluous duets are a joy, and their convincing relationship only serves to point up disappointments elsewhere, not least in the central duo of Garrett's Don Giovanni and Matthew Hargreaves as his Leporello. Mozart's brilliantly defined creations need richer, more powerful voices than these.
The same is true of Don Giovanni's only tenor role. How can Don Ottavio's great second-act aria, ‘Il mio tesoro', possibly fail to engage? Yet that's what happens here and elsewhere in Thomas Walker's uncomfortable reading.
On the first night Laura Mitchell started nervously as Donna Elvira, with some uneasy vocal tightness, but she soon warmed to the role and gave a wonderfully intense performance, warm of voice and impassioned in her acting. She is well matched by the creamy soprano of Ana James as Donna Anna, although this fine singer should have been encouraged to sacrifice some of her vocal beauty for a more penetrating exploration of this poor woman's tragedy.
As with Holland Park's Hansel and Gretel a year ago, it is Stephen Barlow's inspired direction that will linger longest in the memory. The eerie masks in the Overture, the overheard conversations in a gentlemen's club, the survivors' paths at the opera's close as they banish the devil and resume their normal lives: such moments as these are touching, surprising and often extraordinarily moving.