Photo - Wales Online Don Giovanni (David Kempster) gets to know Donna Elvira (Nuccia Focile)
Don Giovanni – David Kempster
Leporello – David Soar
Donna Anna – Camilla Roberts
Don Ottavio – Robin Tritschler
Donna Elvira – Nuccia Focile
Zerlina – Claire Ormshaw
Masetto – Gary Griffiths
Commendatore – Carlo Malinverno
Conductor – Lothar Koenigs
Orchestra and Chorus of WNO
Director – John Caird
Designer – John Napier
Assistant Designer - Yoon Bae
Choreographer – Kate Flatt
Lighting Designer – David Hersey
Fight Director – Kevin McCurdy
Another new season, another new Don Giovanni. Does the world need a fresh retelling of Mozart’s hell bound opera? Probably not. Does WNO’s new production shed new light on the only man in operatic history to have RSI of the groin? Again, probably not. Is it worth you travelling out to see? Definitely yes.
John Caird gives us a traditional telling of the opera – good and bad are clearly drawn, the humour in the work is played for laughs, not for introspection. Salzburg audiences would more than likely turn their noses up at it, but judging by their fashion sense a Salzburgian disapproval would surely count as a vote of approval elsewhere. I’ve seen many different takes on Don Giovanni, all fascinating and striving towards an exploration of the protagonist / society – and quite often they succeed, but Caird has given us something just as equally important as a deconstruction of the text, and that is to give us a Giovanni of enjoyment, a Giovanni that Mozart would recognise. In this, he is ably assisted by John Napier’s foreboding, yet beautiful designs – a set of moveable walls, inlaid figures echoing classical images of hell with their tormented poses. Apart from being a feast for the eyes, the walls allow a visible refreshing of scenes, and avoid playing against a blank canvas that can often be the case with many Mozart operas, given the nature of their numerous, and rapid, scene changes. Central to the design, indeed, the genesis for the design as a whole, is a scaled up version of Rodin’s The Gates of Hell, which open up and take Don Giovanni to an effective flaming hell, ultimately giving Star Wars fans a nice Han Solo ending for our anti-hero.
Photo - The Arts Desk © Richard H Smith Leporello (David Soar) and his boss (David Kempster)
With the scene, and directions set, the next piece of the puzzle is the cast, led more than ably by David Kempster’s devious Don. Devilish, with a hint of malice, he was convincing in the role, switching from heartless to horny with his generous baritone conquering (nearly) all the women in his path. As with any great role versatility is required, and Kempster displayed plenty with Fin ch'han dal vino and Deh vieni alla finestra sung with ease. A nice touch by Napier and his team had the Don dressed in white clothing, turning the idea of a knight in shining armour on its head. His reward for giving such an accomplished performance was to be roundly booed at the curtain call, a sure sign from a WMC audience that you’ve played a good baddie.
The task of playing the Don’s put-upon servant fell to David Soar. Long time readers of the blog will know that I’m a big fan of his, and his Leporello did little to diminish his rising stock – following appearances at Covent Garden and Salzburg he is due to make his Met debut in the 2012 / 13 season. Caird had him play Leporello as a wannabe Giovanni, coming to his master’s aid in the opening duel (enabling Giovanni to kill the Commendatore) and looking to have his wicked way with anything in a dress at the drop of his worn, cavalier style hat. Throughout the evening he made light work of the quick fire demands made on him vocally by the role with superb enunciation, and the money aria for any Leporello (Madamina, il catalogo è questo) was munched nicely by his dark chocolate bass of a voice.
So the bad men covered themselves in glory – but what about the “good” guys?
Donna Anna’s owner for the evening, Camilla Roberts, put in a shift and a half as the wronged woman with vengeance on her mind. It’s easy for Anna to be seen as little more than a beige background to Giovanni’s antics, but Roberts breathed a tumult of emotions into the character, never allowing any hint of apathy to be directed towards her by this particular audience member (he’s a truly nasty piece of work, but sometimes I can’t help but want the Don to escape the mob’s clutches). It’s often said (by me) that you need a four seasons in one-day kind of a voice for Donna Anna, and Roberts carries a waterproof coat, a pac a mac, sunglasses and a winter coat throughout her performance.
Despite the numerous impressive performances, the revelation of the evening (for me) was Robin Tritschler’s Don Ottavio. I’ve seen Tritschler a few times, and though I’ve always liked the beauty of his voice I’d found, until Friday, it suffered in the volume department. On opening night it was as if Tritschler had discovered a booster button, crucially without affecting the light natured timbre of his voice, and it gelled well with his firm middle and he gave a gloriously well-rounded performance both vocally, and visually, achieving the impossible in having me look forward to Don Ottavio’s arias – who surely is one of the most boring characters in opera. For this, Tritschler receives my Golden Lock of the Night Award ™.
Photo - The Arts Desk © Richard H Smith Donna Anna (Camilla Roberts) and Don Ottavio (Robin Tritschler)
For his second role with WNO Gary Griffiths was inch perfect as Masetto. His effortless baritone swayed this way and that with Masetto’s ever changing love-addled emotions, capturing the audience’s heart, judging by his reception at the curtain call. Like most voices of depth he is blessed with an imposing frame, which was put to great use as his Masetto couldn’t help but whisk his Zerlina off her feet with gentle precision throughout the performance.
Claire Ormshaw was her usual pocket rocket self as Zerlina. Coy, artful and heartfelt she wrapped Masetto around her little finger as easy as she reached her creamy high notes. I get the feeling Mozart would have loved the sight of the diminutive Ormshaw becalming Griffiths’ imposing Masetto as she sang Batti, batti, o bel Masetto.
Only the casting of Nuccia Focile as Donna Elvira chimed at odds with the rest of the production. With her sparkling, flighty voice, and her undoubted skills as a comedic actress, the decision to make Elvira a far more comic role than I’ve seen before could have been the icing on the cake, but despite her succeeding with the comedy, I felt the role didn't suit her vocally, which is a shame as I’ve enjoyed Focile in every other role I’ve seen her in.
The job of dragging Giovanni to hell was given to the impressive Carlo Malinverno. The Commendatore has to be the greatest part-time gig in the whole world of opera, with the showstopper of all showstoppers in the shape of Don Giovanni, a cenar teco. I’ve seen quite a few Commendatores sink beneath an orchestra, so it was particularly thrilling to have a bass who could go deep sea fishing with the score.
Adding their support the chorus were boringly excellent as usual (have an off night so I can moan about you once in a while) – the male section getting to dress up as hooded monks who roamed creepily about the stage throughout the performance.
Lending superb support throughout the evening was Lothar Koenigs and his band of merry men and women. If any of you haven’t heard these folks in action you’re missing out on a real treat. Supple, muscular, chilling and thrilling, Koenigs led the orchestra and singers through the score, allowing both to shine – winds of all names, strings of all sizes, brasses with fire in their arses and percussions of the kitchen and beyond brought Mozart’s music to life, reminding you, if you didn’t need reminding already, just how brilliant this music is.
The ovations at the end of the evening told the story of this premiere. John Caird and his team have given us a Don Giovanni that, while traditional in its presentation, is an eerie feast for the eyes. The performers cannot help but give memorable performances, with solo and ensemble singing to die for, aided by Lothar Koenigs’ dazzling orchestra. There will be starrier productions of Don Giovanni hitting stages, and cinema screens, around the globe in the coming months, but you would be hard pressed to find a more satisfying cast, and production, than WNO’s. With Davids Kempster and Soar leading a cast of genuine substance you would be doing your ears, and the devilish part of your souls, a great favour in catching a performance, either in Cardiff or on its travels.