It's a rum do when the star turn in Don Giovanni is the sap Don Ottavio, but hats off to the American tenor Matthew Polenzani for injecting urgency and vocal passion into Duncan MacFarland's otherwise lame revival of Francesca Zambello's 2002 production. On an evening when character engagement is at a premium, Polenzani brings Italianate fervour to his two big arias and protects Donna Anna with earnest ferocity. The temperature rises a notch whenever he appears.
The stage warms up in other ways, too, when gas-stove flames engulf the hellbound Don Giovanni at the end of the opera. These roaring jets are a high point in the late Maria Björnson's designs, even if the giant fiery hand that points the roué to the underworld does seem a touch Pythonesque. For the rest, the visual language is a patchwork. There's a nifty central construction – a bendy, revolving chunk of scenery that comprises a wall of religious iconography, a tenement bedroom and a trompe-l'oeil ballroom – but it's a pictorial hotch-potch that does little to illuminate the drama. Of greater concern is the massive picture frame that surrounds the stage and puts damaging distance (literal and emotional) between the audience and the action. Allowing an opera of Don Giovannis dramatic immediacy to be viewed through the'wrong end of a telescope is a fatal flaw.
After a perfunctory, trumpet-heavy account of the Overture, the Greek conductor Constantinos Carydis embarks on a curiously episodic interpretation of this great score. The resultant absence of overriding tension makes for flaccid drama, despite the best efforts of Gerald Finley (burly of voice and torso in the title role and, with his demonic-cherub demeanour, properly persuasive as a ruthless seducer) to put some lead into this Don Giovannis pencil.
Lorenzo Regazzo's vocally underpowered Leporello is no match for his master. The spark is missing. Adam Plachetka fares better as the cuckolded peasant Masetto, not least by remaining true to his character despite the unpleasant sounds produced by Irini Kyriakidou as his intended, Zerlina. With her shrill upper register and her insecure timbre one has to question the recruitment of such an unprepossessing singer to the ranks of the Royal Opera. Perhaps all the home-grown sopranos are busy just now.
As the ultimate wronged woman Donna Elvira should break the heart, but Katarina Karnéus struggles to get near the emotional solar plexus despite the warmth of her mezzo register. Dramatically and emotionally she seemed at sea on opening night, and unfortunately she faded badly towards the end of her great aria, ‘Mi tradi, quell'alma ingrata'. It was left to Hibla Gerzmava to save the day for the distaff side with a finely sung Donna Anna of surprising complexity. Saint or hypocrite? the answer is left delightfully ambiguous.
While her production remains low on psychological insight, Zambello at least flavours the finale with a sweet flourish. Having treated the audience to a three-hour celebration of lust and murder, Mozart and his librettist, Lorenzo da Ponte, feel obliged to bang on about ‘just deserts' in a dutifully moralising epilogue, ‘Questo è il fin di chi fa mai'. How refreshing, then, to catch a parting glimpse of Finley's Don as he punctures the posturing with a gleeful cackle, a naked damsel in his arms, happy as a pig in shit among the ladies of Hades.
- Mark Valencia