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NSA Don With Strings Attached

In Classical Music, Mozart, Opera, Review on November 9, 2012 at 8:30 am

Review – Don Giovanni (The Lowry Theatre, Wednesday 7 November 2012)

Don Giovanni – William Dazeley
Leporello – Alastair Miles
Donna Anna – Meeta Raval
Don Ottavio – Christopher Turner
Donna Anna – Elizabeth Atherton
Zerlina – Claire Wild
Masetto – Oliver Dunn

Director – Alessandro Talevi
Set & Costume Designer – Madeleine Boyd
Lighting Designer – Matthew Haskins
Choreographer – Victoria Newlyn

Orchestra of Opera North
Conductor – Anthony Kraus

It’s a hit and miss affair with Opera North it seems. A magnificent Das Rheingold but a disappointing Die Walküre. And productions of Norma and Giulio Cesare that were lacklustre and in the case of the Bellini, miscast.

So it was with some trepidation that I returned to The Lowry for their new production of Don Giovanni.

However, bar a few misgivings this new production was smart and occasionally sassy. Some future fine tuning is needed and perhaps a new look at some of the casting will also strengthen what is, overall, an intelligent take on an oft-performed opera.

And personally, it’s originality is miles ahead of the schlock currently on stage at ENO and stringer than Covent Garden recent attempt.

Therefore it’s a shame that there was inconsistency in the quality of the singing. To start at the top, Dazeley’s Don was vocally and for most of the time dramatically one dimensional. It’s not that he isn’t a fine singer, he was just the wrong singer for the role. His light-weight voice didn’t only fail to always carry above the orchestra – not helped at the end by swinging him wildly around the stage ahead of his denouement – but didn’t possess the light and shade to reflect both the amorous and more threatening aspects of his character that needs clear portrayal in the music. For example, the dual vocal personality required in the quartet Non ti fidar, o misera. And there was little sense of the dual personality of a man who one moment is a charmer and seducer and the next a potentially brutal thug.

But where Dazeley did shine was as a foil to Leporello. Garbed – so it seemed – as a Victorian freakshow manager, Alastair Miles was both one of the more vocally accomplished characters as well as an intelligent actor. The only place where he didn’t seem to take advantage of the inherent humour of the narrative was at the opening of the Second act and his initial interaction with Donna Elvira. But side by side, their master/servant act was both humorous and Miles’ assured vocal delivery seemed to transfer to Dazeley.

Both Meeta Raval and Elizabeth Atherton as Donne Anna and Elvira respectively were vocally brittle. Ms Raval’s harshly metallic voice unpleasantly cut through her fellow Valkyries earlier this year and within the confines of this production it sat uncomfortable across Mozart’s music. Technically she is an accomplished singer but her voice simply has a brittle, harsh tone not suited to Donna Anna. Similarly Ms Atherton’s voice was on the hard side and struggled in places to get through entire phrases, leading to distracting pauses in her music. Also there were serious intonation problems throughout and most alarmingly in Mi tradi. However it has to be said that in ensemble the two ladies seemed re suited for example in Non ti fidar and Protegga il giusto cielo.

Don Ottavio is a difficult role to cast. It is not Christopher Turner’s natural ken but he made a valiant attempt at the role. A ‘stand-and-deliver’ tenor he was – again – marginally stronger in ensemble. Dalla sua pace – an often under-rated Mozartian gem – is beguilingly difficult to carry off and Turner struggled, relying at critical moments, such as the closing bars on a technique more suited to the verismo and bel canto roles that seem to make up the mainstay of his repertoire.

But by far the two stand-out performances came from the Zerlina and Masetto of Claire Wild and Oliver Dunn. While Dunn may not always have carried across the orchestra he sang and acted with conviction and possesses a warm, round baritone. And Ms Wild’s Zerlina was strongly characterised and her singing was bold, confident and burnished. Her Batti, batti quite rightly brought cheers not only for her acting ability but the musicianship she displayed.

Following the below par playing of Die Walküre the Orchestra of Opera North under Anthony Kraus delivered some clean, light almost chamber-like playing. It’s always interesting in the opening bars of the overture to see if the conductor observes the correct length of the double bass notes as pointed out by William Mann. Kraus did not and neither did he create enough of a contrast or tension between the adagio opening section and the ensuing allegro. Indeed on the whole, Kraus’ tempi was on the fast side, sometimes so fast that the singers struggled to keep up or get the words out. But the orchestra skittered though the music with aplomb if not much character.

So to the production.

Talevi’s take – with his colleagues – had some clever ideas hidden within it built around themes of control and time.

First of all the very obvious reference to Punch & Judy and puppetry. Talevi smartly and with charm incorporated this into the narrative. For example in the Catalogue aria as well as in the scenes with Don Giovanni and Massetto as well as Leporello and Donna Elvira. Framing Donna Anna and Don Ottavio as if in a painting, perhaps alluding to their more suppressed lives, was also intriguing. Where the puppetry seemed to come undone for me was with Don Giovanni himself. All well and good having him play puppet master as Massetto tries to escape in the second act but having him hoisted into the flies at the end as a puppet himself was more of a stretch, despite the nice touch of his demise at the hand of jilted brides. Similarly an inference at the end to the other characters merely as puppets of a Deus ex machina was confusing as relying on the connection with either the Punch & Judy element or the Commendatore’s return wasn’t enough.

There was also a sense of Victorian drama-cum-farce running through the production. As I’ve noted Leporello was a freak show circus master with Don Giovanni a booted and suited Dorian Gray-like character and Donna Anna and Don Ottavio extras from a Wharton novel. Don Ottavio as kleptomaniac slash grave robber got a laugh but was wasted or pointless – depending in your view – as it wasn’t developed.

And Donna Anna’s costume evolution from Like-A-Virgin Madonna to an Oscar Wilde female lead to Sharon Stone from Fatal Instinct hinted at a temporal theory to the story that didn’t really gel even with the inclusion of Masetto and Zerlina as teddy boys and girls.

Clearly the juxtaposition of different eras hinted that Don Giovanni himself was timeless – perhaps immortal to chime with the immortality of themes of Makropulos and Faust in the rest of Opera North’s season – but it didn’t really gain momentum even with the brides in the final scene.

Yet an unexpectedly poignant moment was Don Giovanni’s serenade, sung not to an individual but rather to the female characters daubed on the walls of the set. Was it a whorehouse? His house? Hard to tell. But it seemed as if at that precise moment it wasn’t so much Don Giovanni as seducer as Don Giovanni as dispossessed and tragic.

So in a sense Talevi had too much going on. A plethora of ideas – most of them good – that need thinning out and finessing.

If that can be done, and the casting can be sorted then Opera North has a production that will be not only bankable and enjoyable for the audience, but thought-provoking as well.

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  1. […] a motto that Opera North could adopt more often than not based on some of their most recent productions and sadly also true of their new production of Mozart’s La Clemenza di […]

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