Don Giovanni (Royal Opera House)
Kasper Holten's video-heavy production of Mozart's opera returns in its first revival
For all its digital bells and whistles, and notwithstanding an ending that's been even further truncated since its initial appearance last year (which I missed), Kasper Holten's production of Mozart's tragi-comedy is pretty conventional. Costumes are prosaic — muted suits for the gents, diva gowns for the women — and decisions over characterisation raise few eyebrows. These days we're used to ambiguity in the depictions of Donna Anna and the Commendatore, while for the rest it's as straightforward a rendering as you'll see, and one that I gather has been more smoothed out still since that first incarnation.
Heavens, though, it's overproduced. Don Giovanni is part comedy of manners, part thriller, but above all it's character-driven and, in more senses than one, intimate. Holten is having none of that. Instead he treats this dramma giocoso to a concept fit for the Norse gods. A massive revolving set, all sliding walls and criss-crossing staircases, looks as though it's been co-designed by Escher and Rubik; but no, it's an Es Devlin supershow with more than a touch of the Olympics about it.
And that's just the start. There's a new paintbox in town that allows video projections and scenery to move in perfect harmony, and video designer Luke Halls has been playing with it. You can tell it was a novelty toy last year because the tricks never stop. Twelve months down the line, in Król Roger, he would deploy its potential with greater restraint and to far greater effect. At times here the frenetic visuals are genuinely thrilling, but at others they lend bathos, as in the setting for Don Ottavio's "Il mio tesoro" which looks as though someone left a giant cake out in the rain, dripping and woebegone.
At least this first revival boasts some excellent male performances. Only its Leporello also appeared in 2014, although the last time I saw Alex Esposito in the role he and Erwin Schrott were gurning to the audience during the death throes of Francesca Zambello's unlamented production. So it's a pleasure to find him here in a disciplined and lyrically sweet account that's the ideal foil to Christopher Maltman's cool, urbane but — a silkily seductive "Deh vieni alla finestra" aside — not very sexy Don. The Masetto of Argentinian bass Nahuel di Pierro seems to emit far more pheromones despite his character's predilection for wife-slapping.
While plenty has been written about Rolando Villazón's vocal issues there's been insufficient acknowledgement of his subtle acting. The Mexican tenor imbues the empty character of Don Ottavio with greater depth and interest than we usually see, while vocally it's no slight to say that the role's modest scale is well suited to his reduced powers.
Of the women it's Dorothea Röschmann, singing and suffering wonderfully as Donna Elvira, who steals the honours. The German soprano is in glorious, sensuous voice. At the other end of the scale there's a worrying Zerlina in Julia Lezhneva, whose white tone and overstrung intonation make an unappealing combination. Her Russian compatriot Albina Shagimuratova is a rich-voiced Donna Anna, even though she too was prone to the occasional pitch slip.
What they all had in common was a lack of sympathy with Alain Altinoglu's wayward conducting. The stage-pit ensemble fell apart rather too often on the first night: unsurprisingly so, since the Frenchman's overture seemed to herald something big-boned and Beethovenian whereas his subsequent tempos went skidding about like a cat on lino.