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Review: Don Giovanni (Royal Opera House)

Video kills the opera star – or nearly – in this well-cast revival of Mozart's masterpiece

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Mariusz Kwiecień as Don Giovanni, Rachel Willis-Sørensen as Donna Anna and Pavol Breslik as Don Ottavio in Don Giovanni (ROH)
© Bill Cooper

Four years is a long time in tech terms and, my, Kasper Holten's tricked-out wow show has worn badly. When the Royal Opera's former director of opera ditched the company's previous unloved Don Giovanni back in 2014 he used its replacement to experiment with new video possibilities by combining the mouse-clicking expertise of Luke Halls with Es Devlin's Escher-inspired cuboid set.

The trouble is, when you're a kid with a new craft kit you want to try everything in the box. Only later, when you've mastered its possibilities, do you get choosier. Because selective = effective, or 'less is more', as no one appears to have dared tell Holten. And today, 50 months later? Just look at the state of the art. People and places change colour and perspective inside a kaleidoscope of projected swirls; Information and emotions (anyone's confusingly, not just the Don's) are writ large in calligraphy or mood paintings. In one horrible misjudgement the tenor's tender-but-vengeful ""Il mio tesoro" becomes a slow cascade of giant black tears, as if someone left a cake out in the rain.

Tucked inside this sensory overload a safe, almost prosaic retelling of Mozart's dark masterpiece unfolds as the great seducer Don Giovanni (aka Don Juan) works his way through the women of Europe. When he murders the father of one of them - the Commendatore, destined to return as a lethally stone-faced ghost – the clock starts ticking on his own retribution. Only at the end, when the director simply stops the opera after the Don's final yell, is there any kind of jolt. Don Giovanni without its epilogue is usually called 'the Vienna edition', but this one turns it into some kind of statement. Loud cry, lights out, bang.

The new revival, its second, has been cannily cast. A big production needs powerful voices and there are Met-level superstars in this – every one of them a winner. Mariusz Kwiecień, Holten's original Don, returns and again proves himself the ideal anti-hero. All aristocratic swagger and entitlement, his lustrous baritone is ripely insinuating. Ildebrando D'Arcangelo, himself a seasoned Giovanni (not least in this production when it toured to Japan), displays lithe comic chops as his manservant Leporello even if his bass-baritone is darker of hue than we're used to, while Willard White exudes baleful righteousness as the Commendatore. Tenor Pavol Breslik sings both of Don Ottavio's arias with epic tenorial fervour.

On the distaff side honours are stolen by Rachel Willis-Sørensen, a soprano who's been in outstanding voice this summer both here and as Glyndebourne's Marschallin. Her incarnation of Donna Anna is profoundly intense and lyrical, and her account of "Non mi dir" is probably the evening's high point. Hrachuhi Bassenz, an exciting singer from Armenia, complements her as a forceful yet anguished Donna Elvira and is rewarded by being allowed to sing "Mi tradì" undistracted by trickery during a lull between projections.

Notwithstanding the firepower of these divos and divas, the abiding delight of this Don Giovanni – which, incidentally, has been expertly revived by Amy Lane – is a quieter double-act: the Masetto and Zerlina of Anatoli Sivko and Chen Reiss. Not only do their timbres blend sweetly, they chime more gratefully with conductor Marc Minkowski's historically informed reading than the bigger-boned voices elsewhere. Still, a full house of ear-pleasing singers is rare enough to be a cause for celebration and it makes for a satisfying night of top-class Mozart. Shame about the visuals.

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