Don set firmly on the dark side

A little seduction my dear: Nuccia Focile as Donna Elvira confronts the charms of David Kempster's Don Giovanni. Pictures:  Richard H Smith

Don Giovanni

Welsh National Opera

Birmingham Hippodrome

****

I AM not quite sure what to make of this new production by Welsh National Opera of Mozart's black comedy with its supernatural overtones.

Close your eyes and the sumptuous music and glorious singing flows over you; open them and before you is not so much black comedy as just . . . well . .  black.

The set is a sort of National Coal Board gothic with what appear to be huge slabs of anthracite, monolithic blocks carved with intricate Spanish themes, which are wheeled around to make dark alleys, cemeteries, squares, gardens, palace walls and even give us Rodin's Gates of Hell.

Then there is a bunch of what appear to be baroque Darth Vaders who glide around the dark and gloomy sets from time to time for no apparent reason except to imply we are in a twilight zone - or depths of night zone most of the time - on the edge of the realms of  life, death and the hereafter.

I am not a lover of dark and gloomy sets at the best of times and these often appear to be lit by a couple of 40 watt bulbs with even the palace gardens looking like they are set on a bed of nutty slack by the main seam in some deep coal mine.

Gardens, incidentally, are portrayed by some large volcanic rocks encasing bodies which are carried on and off.

David Soar as Leporello and David Kempster as Don Giovanni try to inject a little humour into proceedings.

The darkness tends to stifle all the comic overtones of the opera which is a pity. David Kempster, who has a wonderful baritone voice, did his best to inject some humour as the rakish Don Giovanni. This is a man who makes Don Juan appear celibate remember, a nobleman who lies, cheats, tricks and deceives as a way of life and has no thoughts that stray far away from himself and pursuit of pleasure – bit like a politician really.

Kempster's bad Don is played a little tongue in cheek but somehow you feel that the idea of the Don as a sort of Jack the lad, men behaving badly, rakish rogue is not what is intended here

He is helped and hindered in equal measure by his reluctantly faithful servant Leporello played by David Soar, who  pulls out as many laughs as he can with asides and comments but you feel they are tolerated rather than welcomed.

He turns the catalogue song Madamina, il catalogo è questo into a bit of a romp as he lists Don Giovanni's conquests,  640 in Italy, 231 in Germany, 100 in France, 91 in Turkey, and 1,003 in Spain (UK nil points it seems. What's wrong with British women then!!) but much of the comic potential is stifled by the heavy, black sets and gloomy, melodramatic direction.

A pity, as the audience, from the evidence of their stifled titters, were up for a laugh given half a chance but the chance never came.

What was there though was a solid performance carried on with real flair by the Welsh National Opera orchestra conducted by Lothar Koenigs. A mention too for Stephen Wood on harpsichord and Daniel Thomas on Madolin.

The opera sees a quartet from spring's production of Cosi Fan Tutte back in very different roles with Robin Tritschler as Don Ottavio, the fiancé of Donna Anna, Camilia Roberts. The pair were Ferrando and Fiordiligi at the seaside.

Tritschler has a pleasant light tenor voice which perhaps lacks the power and gravitas required for the role of the avenging, wronged lover, and you wonder if he is given a pair of specs to wear in the role to indicate a bit of a weedy, nerdy nature, but he does come into his own with the difficult aria Il Mio tesora, my treasure, when he swears to kill Don Giovanni, his fiancées' father's murder.

Roberts' Donna Anna, has been seduced and then abandoned, as so many before – 1,003 in Spain alone – by the randy Don and has then seen her father, the Commendatore, killed trying to protect her honour.

When the gates of Hell open wide and you are engulfed in fire, brimstone and ever so bright red lights you know it is not going to end well as David Kempster's Don Giovanni is about to find out

It is an emotional role which she relishes with a fine  Or sai chi l'onore.

Gary Griffiths, Guglielmo last time around, is a solid, angry Masetto, full of fury and indignation as the burly peasant lad who is about to be married to Zerlina, Claire Ormshaw, when the Don steps in for first dibs, so to speak.

Ormshaw, Despina in the seaside romp, has less scope for humour here but her Vedrai carino as she consoles her betrothed Masetto who has just been beaten up by Don Giovanni, who in turn is disguised as Leporello, is a treat as is her Batti, batti o bel Masetto as she tries to persuade her husband to be . . . maybe . .  that nothing had happened between her and our local lothario, Don Giovanni.

The same can't be said of Donna Elvira, who, several hundred conquests ago, ended up married to Don Giovanni and was probably not the first nor the last according to Leporello.

Elvira, played with a passion by Nuccia Focile, has a mixture of affection and hatred of our anti-hero always ready to believe he has reformed and begs for his life all to no avail as he his nobbled by the Commendator's statue and sent to the fires of Hell where he is turned into a sort of freshly-cast, steaming, modern art sculpture – a sort of Antony Gormley version of Pompeii.

The story is there, the singing and playing is first class, the sound clear and well balanced and, in truth, it is a most enjoyable evening which could be made so much more satisfying though if it were just to lighten up a little both in terms of colour and candlepower, and in attitude. Let there be light and fun amid the cheats never prosper morality – after all Mozart catalogues Don Giovanni as opera buffa – comic opera – and perhaps he should know. The Don lusts again on 18-11-11

Roger Clarke

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