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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART, Don Giovanni, Opera North at the Grand Theatre, Leeds, January 15th 2005 (RJF)

This new Opera North production by Olivia Fuchs, with designs by Nicki Turner, is a curious melange of visual images. The basic set was the same for both acts. It comprised a metal walkway set about ten feet above the stage and accessed by three sets of steel ladders. The pre-performance publicity talked about the Spanish Civil War, the Alhambra Palace and Hall of Mirrors. There were some mirrors set towards the back of the stage but their benefit or use was severely limited by the predominately dark lighting of the whole procedure. The best use of the darkness at the rear of the stage came with the lighting of the face of the Commendatore in the graveyard scene, when Don Giovanni invites the stone guest to dinner. For those unaware of the details of the plot, the graveyard could have gone unrecognised when just three trolleys, with what might have been bodies or effigies, briefly emerged from the wings. Here is the crux of my criticism of the set and production.


For those without intimate knowledge of the opera there was no coherent visual illumination of the various situations that are at the core of the rapidly moving work. During the overture a troop of soldiers carrying guns marched through and other persons, variously attired, cavorted around. Don Giovanni appeared in a red lined cloak and exchanged it with Ottavio. Was this meant to imply the latter’s encouragement to Giovanni to go where he had been and perhaps achieve what he hadn’t? The walkway was used as exit from Donna Anna’s bedroom. She emerged en dishabille and gave more appearance of trying to grab Don Giovanni back to her chamber than stopping his escape. Donna Elvira’s first appearance was in a trouser suit and carrying a rucksack. She lit a cigarette as she listened with increasing ire to Leporello’s catalogue of his master’s amorous escapades. She later appeared, in more upper class guise, in a rose coloured ball gown. It was a good job the gown wasn’t scarlet or the audience might well have been taken up another visual cul-de-sac. After recovering from Don Giovanni’s visit to her bedroom, and the killing of her father, Donna Anna appeared dressed in a nicely fitting full-length dress with white gloves that accentuated Sussanah Glanville’s height. She certainly looked the most becoming of the aristos. Ottavio, like Don Giovanni, spent his time in a dinner jacket, draped for most of act I with a white scarf that made him look even more of a wimpish fop than usual. The late act function of the scarf was to tie the hands of the captured Don Giovanni whilst Massetto’s neck scarf did the same for Leporello. Their escape was less than convincing. The most incongruous visual image was at Don Giovanni’s party, when in the course of separating Zerlina and enticing her up the ladder to his room, the guests danced a variety of twist, jive and rock and roll. These dance modes on 1936 Spain? Really! The dancing style to Mozart’s divine music was wholly inappropriate. Whilst I am on about ridiculous producer ideas it is time they realised that the last thing that singers want near them is smoke. To ask both leading ladies to light up cigarettes, puff out smoke, and then get their vocal chords round the demanding tessitura of the likes of ‘Mi tradi’ and ‘Non mir dir’, is an effrontery that should not be perpetuated on singers.

Thankfully some, at least, of the singing and acting was of an acceptable standard. As the eponymous anti-hero, Roderick Williams conveyed the sadistic rapist rather than the suave seducer. There was more than a touch of barely suppressed violence in his body language and actions towards his servant and the various women. In this respect he conveyed the producer’s intentions. Vocally, I initially feared him to be a little light toned, even underpowered. However, he showed more tonal bite and weight as the work progressed. By act II it was obvious that his careful pacing allowed for full voiced singing, phrasing and tonal colour to complete an impressive portrayal. Leporello doesn’t get as long to warm his voice before he has to embark on his demanding Catalogue Aria. Andre Foster-Williams was incisive of tone, exact in diction, varied in vocal colour, and suitably impressive of facial expression and acting, as to convey a very convincing Leporello. His portrayal, as much as Roderick Williams’ Giovanni, was a histrionic tour de force. Of similar height and build they had the misfortune, in terms of visual impact, of not being as tall as either the Donna Anna of Sussanah Glanville or the Elvira of Giselle Allan. Both sopranos had been admired in Opera North’s Rusalka of a couple of years ago, the latter as the eponymous Water Nymph, and the former as the Foreign Princess. Mozart’s demands in this opera are considerably greater than Dvorak makes on his singers. It is to the credit of both divas that they acquitted themselves well to those demands. Sussanah Glanville has the purer tone and could have gainfully added a little more tonal colour to the demanding ‘Non mir dir, bell’idol mio’ as she tries to placate Ottavio’s rising libidinous frustration. Her pure voice was nicely contrasted with the quick vibrato of Giselle Allen’s; she must beware letting her declamations in ‘Mi tradi’ becoming too frenetic. Both will settle to even better singing now they know those hurdles need hold no fears for them. I would though ask for a little more concentration on diction from both, particularly without the benefit of sur-titles and when the rendering is in English.


In his portrayal of Don Ottavio, the frustrated would be suitor and lover of Donna Anna, Iain Paton was no more successful than many who have gone before in giving the character meaningful substance. His singing of the heady act I ‘Dalla sua pace’ was less secure than the his well phrased and sung ‘Il mio tesoro’ in act II where the strength and metal in his voice was more evident. Kim-Marie Woodhouse and Wyn Pencarreg sang the young peasant lovers, Zerlina and Massetto. She failed to convey either the flirtatiousness of Zerlina or her contrition after allowing Don Giovanni to whisk her off to his room. Her ‘Vedrai carino’ was thin above the stave and would have provided little balm for Massetto’s wounded body or ego. Wyn Pencarreg was a physically large Massetto. He looked the dullard peasant who would fall for any con from his flighty bride to be, who had fancied a touch up from the aristocratic Don Giovanni, but his singing lacked depth and variety of tone.

The fifth scene of act II should include a suitable coup de theatre as the Commendatore arrives to answer Don Giovanni’s invitation to dinner, and after proffering his hand, drags him down to hell. Chorus members in dinner jackets and white masks portrayed the fires of hell with the flames reflecting red lights onto their faces and the mirrors they carried. Not wholly ineffectual, but an opportunity lost and another visual image that left the plot more bemused than illuminated. The scene was saved by the powerful singing of Gerard O’Connor, a company debutant. Imposing of tone and stature I look forward to hearing him again. The new Musical Director of the company, Richard Farnes, was rather too relaxed for my liking in act I as he dwelt over details. The contrast with his pacey dynamism in act II was considerable and greatly benefited the overall momentum of the unfolding drama. Aided by this orchestral impetus Roderick Williams’ Don Giovanni, as I have indicated, really came into his own.

This second venture of the season by Opera North into the Mozart/Da Ponte trilogy, is by no means the success of the earlier Cosi Fan Tutte. Both works are notoriously difficult to bring off, but where the updating in the Cosi was consistent, in this production, somewhere between its conception and birth, confusion resulted through the incongruity of its various images and periods represented.

Robert J Farr

Credit: Bill Cooper
DON GIOVANNI by Mozart Opera North The Grand Theatre - Leeds
January 2005 Giselle Allen as Donna Elvira, Andrew Foster-Williams as Leporello, Roderick Williams as Don Giovanni, Susannah Glanville as Donna Anna and Iain Paton as Don Ottavio.




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