Don Giovanni is a notoriously difficult opera to stage, and out of the dozen or so stagings I’ve seen only one has come close to getting to the heart of this deeply disturbing work, namely Deborah Warner’s modern dress production for Glyndebourne in the ‘90s. Mozart and da Ponte’s ‘dramma giocoso’ presents numerous difficulties to any would-be director as it is often nigh impossible to blend the serious elements with the comic – some may argue that there’s no real comedy in it at all given that the opera opens with an attempted rape and murder, and concludes with the main character being dragged down to hell.
It’s not hard to see why Opera Up Close wanted to get their teeth into this strange and multi-faceted work, but like so many before them their staging is deeply flawed and ultimately fails to do justice to the original. In any case what is presented at The Soho Theatre is very much an adaptation of Mozart and da Ponte’s opera rather than the original. We lose almost an hour of music and what is left is often hideously distorted by the unwelcome intrusion of ‘electronics’. The overture is a recorded version with full orchestra that seems to be going along as per Mozart (although turgid and pedestrian in its tempo) until the ‘allegro’ section which then gets a full-on ‘mashed-up’ version. I failed to see why. Similarly at the Commendatore’s death, there’s a Clanger-like ambience provided by the synth – again I couldn’t fathom why and the onslaught before we’re introduced to Zerlina and Masetto (here renamed Nathaniel) was just plain incongruous.
Director and translator Robin Norton-Halle updated the story to the 90s – which was fine in itself and her re-writing of the text was often very funny but too many of the characters were distorted in the process. The fatal flaw of this conceit was having Anna know that her assailant was Don Giovanni (Jonny) – in doing so not only was the character of Anna completely altered but it made a nonsense out of the rest of the plot. Would she really have let Jonny get away with it, knowing that he had murdered her father, then lie to her fiancé Don Ottavio (Octavius) – only later in Act One revealing that she knew all along who killed her father? Why not just call the police? And the attempted cover up by Jonny and his sidekick Leporello (Alexander) was plain feeble – if you’re going to fake a break-in then you don’t smash the glass from the inside and have the lock on the door on the opposite side unless the robber happens to have arms of gibbon-like proportions.
I have admired this ambitious company’s projects before – especially Poppea, but they’ve come a cropper with this hotch-potch of a ‘Don Giovanni’ but at least they are in august company there. Similarly many of the cast appeared in Troy Boy earlier this year and had impressed but Mozart is a completely different story. A friend of mine hit the nail on the head “Mozart is simple, but never easy”, and he makes notorious demands of his singers - you need a rock-solid technique in order to do him justice. The cast for this version of Don Giovanni were committed and they certainly gave 100%. Emily Leather provided sterling accompaniment on the piano, but ultimately Opera Up Close should have commissioned a new opera to fit the staging they wanted, rather than distort the one that Mozart and da Ponte wrote.