Mary Woodward Review

Don Giovanni – Scottish Opera, Theatre Royal, Glasgow, Review:

Don Giovanni – Scottish Opera,

**** 4 stars

Don Giovanni is a Spanish aristocrat and a womaniser – he cannot be faithful to any one woman, he says, because that would mean depriving all the others of his attentions.  His servant Leporello is both fascinated and repelled by his master’s goings-on: he tries to remonstrate with him, tries to leave him, but time and again is brought back to heel and continues to aid and abet his master.

Giovanni seeks to conquer Donna Anna: when she screams, he leaves and almost nonchalantly kills Anna’s father when he comes to investigate the noise.  At her insistence Anna’s fiancé, Don Ottavio, swears vengeance.  Giovanni and Leporello are catching their breath when they encounter Donna Elvira, whom Giovanni wooed and deserted in Burgos: the Don abandons her again, leaving Leporello to enumerate the highly detailed and lengthy catalogue of his conquests and Elvira to resolve on revenge.

Giovanni’s next encounter is with country girl Zerlina and her husband-to-be Masetto.  He loses no time in tempting Zerlina to accompany him: she is weakening when they are interrupted by Donna Elvira, who denounces the Don and whisks Zerlina away.  Foiled yet again, Giovanni bumps into Anna and Ottavio and feigns sympathy for her, promising to help her find the villain who murdered her father – but as he walks away, Anna realises that it’s he who was in her bedchamber that night: she and Ottavio are added to the list of vengeance-seekers.

Don Giovanni continues his amorous exploits and manages to evade all attempts to bring him to justice and having no hesitation in leaving Leporello to endure the punishments that should be his.  Catching his breath in a cemetery, he notices a statue to Donna Anna’s father, the Commendatore.  In a fit of bravado he invites the statue to dinner: to his surprise his invitation is accepted

At home and enjoying his dinner, Giovanni is interrupted by Elvira who comes to beg him to repent and mend his ways.  Unmoved, he orders her to leave, and sends Leporello to see why she screams on her way out.  His servant is trembling when he returns, announcing that the stone guest has indeed come to dine.  The Commendatore refuses the earthly food he’s offered, and invites Giovanni to return the compliment and dine with him.  Boldly Giovanni takes his hand – but freezes at his touch.  The Commendatore urges him to repent, but three times Giovanni refuses: the unrepentant sinner is hauled by demons into the eternal flames of hell.

Leporello emerges from his hiding place and is joined by Donna Anna, Don Ottavio, Donna Elvira, Zerlina and Masetto who learn of Giovanni’s fate and roundly declare that this is the fate that awaits those who do evil.

Sir Thomas Allen’s production for Scottish Opera was first performed in 2013.  The action takes place in the dark, narrow streets of Venice where the mists rising from the canals hide many secrets.  The story is, in the main, told simply, without gimmicks or “concepts” – though I could have done without the two nuns’ opening up a chapel to show Donna Anna the body of her murdered father.  The set’s claustrophobic streets opened up to the interior of Don Giovanni’s house, and the cemetery, but darkness always prevailed – only after the Don’s death did daylight shine harshly on the ruins of his ‘grand dinner’.

There are many ways to present the character of Giovanni – total villain, charming but gallant seducer, heartless libertine.  Roland Wood went for heavy-set and brutal, which made him hard to warm to – until he sang, when his honeyed tones would make almost anyone succumb to his blandishments.  No wonder that Zerlina couldn’t resist la ci darem’ la mano, or Elvira deh! Vieni alla finestra – even knowing exactly what a bastard he is, I found his seductive tones irresistible.

The women in his life are all very different.  The death of Donna Anna’s father turns her into a steely avenging angel: South Korean Hye-Youn Lee sang brilliantly and almost wallowed in her grief – but why, oh why couldn’t she reward Don Ottavio’s faithful service instead of demanding that he wait a year: small wonder the audience laughed in disbelief.  Argentine tenor Pablo Bemsch sang Ottavio’s challenging arias with consummate ease and strength: no wimp he – but why was he looking at the floor most of the time?  His height is an asset he should have used more.

Donna Elvira has to rage, weep, melt and turn to stone as she is torn between her fury at Don Giovanni’s betrayal of her, her fear for his fate, and her inability to resist his charms.  Kitty Whatley’s acting said it all, but for me her voice wasn’t rich and strong enough – especially when she was singing with the other women.  Lea Shaw is one of this year’s Scottish Opera Emerging Artists, and has already impressed me as the Neighbour in Mavra and Hermia in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, both small-ish roles superbly done.  Now as Zerlina she virtually stole the show – gorgeous voice, brilliant acting, and tremendous personality: watch out for her, she’s going far!

Emyr Wyn Jones made his Scottish Opera debut as Masetto – yet another superb young Welshman joining the company.  Masetto doesn’t have all that much to do, but he did it very well.  Keel Watson’s Commendatore has even less to do – be killed in act one, sit on a plinth in act two, drag Giovanni off to hell in the final act – not a lot of subtlety involved.  I look forward to seeing both men again soon.

And Leporello – a brilliant role, and when really well played he can outshine the Don himself.  American Zachary Altman is another Scottish Opera debutant, and again I hope we see a lot more of him.  His relationship with Giovanni was ambiguous – he seemed impressed against his will when recounting his master’s exploits in the Catalogue aria, and genuine in his outrage and hurt at receiving the blows meant for his boss.  He certainly enjoyed impersonating the Don while wooing Donna Elvira out of the house so Giovanni could get at her maid: was Elvira’s consolatory pat on his shoulder at the finale a sign that she wasn’t as outraged at the deception as she seemed to be when it was uncovered?  His singing was in the main excellent, but the rapid ‘patter’ bits tended to get lost among the other voices.

I wonder whether this, and other imbalances I noticed, arose because I was off to one side in the stalls – the side where the louder instruments are in the pit.  It was all very well done, and the music is among my all-time favourites: but something just didn’t spark for me – hence the absence of that fifth star.  The audience didn’t agree with me – there was prolonged applause for various of the singers whom I’ve criticised, because opera, and singer’s voices, evoke a very different response in all of us [just think Maria Callas – dare I call her the Marmite of opera?]

It’s very clear that Scottish Opera have begun the 2022-3 season, in which they celebrate their sixtieth year of existence, with a great production of one of the greatest of all operas.  The warmth of the audience’s applause reflects their great enjoyment and huge delight in being back [virtually completely masklessly] in the Theatre Royal in Glasgow.  We had a sneak preview of the rest of the season before the show, and I can confidently say we’re in for a year-round succession of fabulous performances, both in cities and on tour to all parts of the country, from Scotland’s national opera company.  Start looking and booking!

Don Giovanni – Scottish Opera, Theatre Royal Glasgow, Run Ended but touring to Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Inverness.

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