Lom a star in the making

Shogun - Don Giovanni (Rory Carver) and Leporello (Samuel Lom) for once in unison.

Pictures: Peter Marsh at Ashmore Visuals

Don Giovanni

Opera Warwick

University of Warwick Arts Centre

****

FOR the University of Warwick, which has no undergraduate Music course, to assay any full length operatic staging is bold in the extreme.

To risk one of Mozart’s Da Ponte trilogy, any of which can leave young singers seriously exposed, is even bolder than last year’s foray into coloratura Rossini, with La Cenerentola (Cinderella), which was carried off with vast stage aplomb and risqué wit, and verged on a national-standard triumph.

With Don Giovanni the whole concept was reversed. Invention, in the sense of directorial intrusion, was kept to a minimum by Fraser Simpson - a newcomer as opera Director, who however has already put musical verve into three Musicals - by playing things relatively straight.

Hence the opera was allowed to speak loud and clear, simply and directly – no bad thing when the invention is all there already in score and libretto. Kit (Kit and the Widow) Hesketh-Harvey’s translation, here cheekily tweaked by the versatile Leporello (Samuel Lom), works every bit as well as others – Jeremy Sams, Amanda Holden – and brings different racy touches.

What we got – and the external set, well tinted like any backstreet of, say, Padua or Salamanca, while bare of graffiti, stray dogs or washing, oddly well emphasised the Harlequinade feel – the tradition in which sundry Don Juans, reaching back to Tirso de Molina’s, are rooted.

Yet there were times when this reading also verged on dull: one wanted something more - glimpses of fine detail, a tweak here or subtle ripple there, that this production, while basically sound, lacked.

Donna Elvira sung by Harriet Fletcher

But with a pretty strong cast all round – Donna Anna’s intermittently refined coloratura (Imogen Faris, promising and aptly strait-laced); a highly competent, fertile and feral Don from Psychology student and choral scholar Rory Carver (last year’s quizzical Dandini); delicious wit from a beautifully-voiced Zerlina (Giulia Boggiano, whose northerly choir credits read like a vocal dream ticket) and initially even the less-than-usually dour Elvira (Harriet Fletcher) – the conquest invented (‘Elvire’) by Molière - what was lacking in invention was made up for by sheer polish in delivery and the actors’ native performing wit.

The orchestra led by Daniel Simmonds, let it be said, was pretty variable. One salutes an institution that can serve up a large band as decent – potentially at least – as one of the ten-odd big Conservatoires. But these players could have, and deserved to, deliver much better.

Conductor Benjamin Hamilton (though the continuo player, Chethams alumnus and ex-Manchester Cathedral chorister Samuel Foster, is credited as Music Director) got many of the pacings pretty right, but neither managed to tighten things sufficiently in what perhaps skimpy rehearsal time he had before a January premiere nor held things tightly together on the night. The opening bars were ragged, and I can think of few moments throughout when I felt the strings were genuinely playing as one, some of it emerging as a kind of bumpy, fluid wash.

The result was a good deal of fuzz and muddiness; while the measly extent to which horn or woodwind achieved prominence made one wonder whether their tone needed honing too – until near the end, when suddenly clarinets shone through like a ray of joy.

The cast, as I say, was almost uniformly competent, and vocally pretty pleasing, though several of the key arias (even Giovanni’s ‘Deh, vieni alla finestra’, albeit with delicious mandolin obbligato, and Donna Elvira’s melting ‘Mi tradi’) didn’t register as they might; and some cuts seemed debilitating and unnecessary.

 What did register was Leporello’s catalogue aria, which set events rolling. Mellifluous, dexterous, Samuel Lom was easily the best thing of the evening. His wit and timing are terrific; the voice is handsome across a wide middle of his range, and sometimes lower down (though he’s no Robert Lloyd or Clive Bayley); even if his top needs a little more work. He either has or deserves some top teachers - they will have so much to work with. What also beamed through was the intelligence. Everything – well, nearly everything – was subtle and finessed. This sharp-witted, winsome performer would make an impact professionally tomorrow; or could take some music college by storm. He has already done some self-honing, in Germany, and it’s clearly paid.

Zerlina (Giulia Boggiano) keeps her new husband (Masetto, Nicolas Rivard) on a tight leash

Lom’s interplay with Carver’s bossy, flouncy as often pretty funny Giovanni, worked a treat: in fact almost every comic scene between them (the clothes/role change here was a classic) was a joy. One kept willing choreographer Cletus Chan’s bevy of slightly superfluous female dancers to come good, and indeed they did, in two particularly finely-chiselled later black-clad ensembles.

One willed Social Work student Matt Bond’s suitably hefty Commendatore (Molière’s – and Dargomizhky’s - ‘Stone Guest’) to come good, too. But though he had the portentousness, he was weakly directed, deployed only a shaky modest baritone without the needed profundo undertow to impact, and had little or no chance when appallingly spotlit in the abysmal upstairs room (five set designers are credited: is this the inevitable consequence of décor by committee?) that added nothing and detracted much: heaven knows what Director and Lights Designer (Tom Gillespy) thought they were doing. Taken together it wrecked the final scene, which ended with a suicidal shot – fair enough - but no meaningful attempt at an infernal doom. Reemploying those black-clad harpies might have worked better.

A decent-sized chorus sang well, but was given precious little to do except periodic partying, which they managed OK (indeed the underuse is Mozart’s or Da Ponte’s fault, not the Director’s, though some – not I - lamented the absence of a final triumph chorus (Questo è il fin), although Mahler thought the same as Warwick: the villain’s demise should end it.

Thank heavens for diversions. One such was Masetto (Nicolas Rivard), whose gloomy face went on to furnish one of the slickest comic turns of the evening: he, if anyone, seemed a Harlequinade escapee, like the classic vecchio or cuckolded Pantaloon. And mightily we chuckled.

So, a mixed risotto, but hats off to a spirited society that puts its head over the parapet and doesn’t duck mighty challenges. 

Roderic Dunnett 

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