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Plumbing the depths

05/31/2001 -  & June 2, 7, 9, 13, 16, 20, 23, 26, 29, July 2, 6, 2001
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Don Giovanni
Nathan Berg (Leporello), Claire Rutter (Donna Anna), Garry Magee (Don Giovanni), Phillip Ens (Commendatore), Paul Nilon (Don Ottavio), Claire Weston (Donna Elvira), Linda Richardson (Zerlina), Leslie John Flanagan (Masetto)
ENO Chorus and Orchestra, Joseph Swensen (conductor)
Calixto Bieito (director)

Some of the Vietnam draft-dodging generation objected to Joseph Losey's 1979 movie version of Don Giovanni because it introduced ideas about class in a realistic way, with very grubby peasants. Thatcher's children seem to be objecting to Calixto Bieito's new production at the ENO because it emphasises abuse and displays it as practiced by today's hedonists. Of course there's nothing more reactionary than an old radical, but it's pushing it to look to Mozart and Da Ponte's Don Giovanni for uplifting spiritual beauty. They turn an already familiar opera buffa that presents the name character's sexual escapades as entertainment, with a cod moral ending, into an exercise in passion and cruelty which emerges as more life affirming than the conventional morality (represented by the Commendatore and Don Ottavio) that opposes it. Casanova and the Marquis de Sade are not far away. But a core subset of the audience for opera in most cities expects vocal beauty and reassurance, and a few of them like to whinge, or boo, if they don't get it. There were boos at both performances so far of this production at the ENO, which should be flattered that its customers now behave as if they were at the Met or La Scala.

The boos were almost inevitable, given the expectations aroused by Bieito's track record in the UK. He directed a pretty good La vide e sueño (about what happens when the animal part of a human gets to let rip) for the Edinburgh Festival, a Così for Welsh National Opera that went back to its sex-comedy roots and then failed to deliver the comedy (in a Barcelona café), and a production for Edinburgh last year that had the actors refusing to perform. Like his Così, Don Giovanni turns out to be visually dreary, with a black set representing a street and then a bar, often disturbing, especially for the performers, and thoroughly thought through and coherent in its own terms. In contrast to Bieito's Così, which looked radical and a bit stylish even if it didn't work, there are comparatively few ideas that haven't been seen before. Peter Sellars did the urban degradation, with underclass and criminal characters rather than clubbers, and found physical disturbance through sex and drugs reflected in the music. And Tony Britten's Music Theatre London did the naff hedonism and laddishness (Don Giovanni is probably a footballer and Leporello is his adoring best mate), though with rather more humour. Bieito's main contribution is to see something Spanish in an opera set in Seville, though it turns out to be Brits in Ibiza.

So the only real question is, how well does it work? It is certainly not a particularly enjoyable or entertaining evening in the opera house (give or take a handful of vocal moments), and for many that means it doesn't work at all. But even on its own terms, the performance doesn't seem to deliver. Perversely, its dominant mood is tedium rather than danger. That doesn't necessarily mean that it's tedious to watch or listen to. But what comes over is world-weariness and desperation, to some extent in the music as well as in the singers' performances. At the same time, the concept is simply too cerebral, not embodied in the action. Opera singers are in the business of delivering extreme emotion, but Bieito seems to ask them to deliver it in a total performance that is too far from singing so that the music belongs only if you make a conscious effort to link it to the action.

The singers, nevertheless, generally give committed performances and it is possible to imagine that it all might come together (as it really wasn't with Così). Claire Weston as Donna Elvira got by far the worst of the production. In a world without real passion or beauty, Elvira, the woman so desirable that Don Giovanni married her to get her, turns into a neurotic basket case, in scruffy denim and fossicking in her bag for a gun like Sara Jane Moore in Assassins. Weston's acting consisted of tics like twisting her hair and tantrums that she didn't come near integrating with the music, though it was a tall. Her singing sounded pressured, not really surprisingly, and her voice is probably too big for Elvira in any case. She did well not to struggle, and it was probably a good thing that the production used the Prague edition so that she didn't have to deal with Mì tradi. Claire Rutter as Donna Anna (in a fat-slag mini skirt) was too similar physically and in her basic voice, but far more together dramatically and vocally. A bit of desperation is fine for Anna, of course. Linda Richardson as a perky Zerlina, up for it in a wedding dress, had a characterization that nearly worked. Leslie John Flanagan was a bland Masetto, losing any character he might have with his peasant trappings.

As Don Giovanni, Gary Magee didn't quite deliver on his demonic promise, coming over as more of a real, boring and obnoxious, lad than the charismatic anti-hero. His singing was solid rather than sexy. Nathan Berg's Leporello was a considerably more substantial presence, even in his underwear and a hairy-chest-and-corset plastic apron. Only a mid-Atlantic accent rang a gentle false note. Phillip Ens was quite terrific as the Commendatore, not quite middle aged yet and obviously a thug, with a truly sinister resonance in his voice. When Don Giovanni kills him, they bundle him into the boot of his car, from which he drags himself (like John Travolta) when he arrives for dinner, in the only moment of real theatricality in the production. Paul Nilon as Don Ottavio wore the top half of a Superman outfit under his dullish suit for most of the opera, and sang superbly in spite of everything. Il miò tesoro was the high point of the evening. It worked quite well within the production, where Ottavio's wussy character doesn't need too much distorting. But it made you long for some more real singing unimpeded by misery.

H.E. Elsom



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