Monday, 21 November 2016

Mozart - Don Giovanni (NI Opera, 2016)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - Don Giovanni

NI Opera, 2016

Nicholas Chalmers, Oliver Mears, Henk Neven, John Molloy, Clive Bayley, Hye-Youn Lee, Rachel Kelly, Sam Furness, Aoife Miskelly, Christopher Cull

Grand Opera House, Belfast - 19th November 2016

So, it would appear that we are coming to the end of Oliver Mears' term as Artistic Director of NI Opera. It seemed obvious that Mears would go on to bigger and better things sooner or later and I suppose you could consider an appointment replacing Kasper Holten as Director of Opera at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden as a step in the right direction. Both Mears and conductor Nicholas Chalmers have achieved much in their time at NI Opera, raising the profile of the work done in the province in a way that has evidently made a favourable impression in the UK opera world. We've been lucky to see some great work from them over the last six of years. In the meantime, as for Don Giovanni at the Grand Opera House in Belfast - well, it's business as usual.

Business as usual however doesn't mean that there is anything at all predictable about the NI Opera production, but without having to involve any fancy concept or new interpretation, they manage to find a way to keep it fresh and modern and still get to the heart of the work. But Mears can also surprise in his choice of location settings. I've seen many productions of Don Giovanni in any number of inventive productions, but I would never have imagined it being suitable to stage on a mid-twentieth century cruise ship. On the other hand, it seems like a perfectly natural place for a romantic adventure and misadventure, to show class differences where there are servants below the decks, and where there is also a recognisable air of period decadence about it all, and isn't class and decadence what Don Giovanni is all about?

Well no, evidently it's about a lot more than that, but too often that is the aspect that is given the greatest emphasis. And it's given that emphasis because Don Giovanni is set in a world where such class distinctions are obvious and because Don Giovanni himself is such a fascinating character to explore. We know he's an inveterate womaniser, we know there's a cruel streak to his use and abuse of women (and his manservant), and we know he does indeed use his position to charm and seduce them. Any deeper exploration of his motivations however usually tends towards a darker, more callous nature, as a murderer and a rapist, and there is a good case for examining Don Giovanni by today's standards in those terms (and the opera is so great that it can bear such an approach), but you have to question whether that was really the tone that Mozart and Da Ponte were aiming for in an opera buffa.

Even though he is amusingly bunked up in cabin 666 of the cruise ship Sevilla, there's nothing really sinister or radical about Oliver Mears' interpretation of Don Giovanni for NI Opera, and it does consequently lack a bit of an edge that you might find in other interpretations. What is significant about the weight and emphasis in this production however was that it is not wholly focussed on an interpretation or exploration of the psychological mindset of Don Giovanni as much as there is a recognition that the work is essentially an ensemble piece with many other areas of interest to explore. And yes, it is essentially a comedy too, but - much like Così Fan Tutte and Le Nozze di Figaro - comedy in the hands of Mozart and Da Ponte can still have a lot of a bite to it. And, when you get right down to it, and no matter from what angle you approach the work, the message here is not one that needs to be overly laboured or complicated: in the end Don Giovanni pays for his sins and goes to hell.

It's tempting to look at some of the references in the production and consider why Don Giovanni has a blonde bouffant hair-do, but this production was developed long before there was any suggestion that Donald Trump would be a figure of such importance. Although, considering the US President-Elect's views of women and his treatment of them, if you want to apply that image to Don Giovanni, you might find it adds another level to a work that is more than capable of sustaining such ideas. It's tempting also to read something into the colonial references of Don Giovanni's fancy-dress party, where he comes dressed as a white hunter taming the savages - but again, there is no overt reference here nor expansion of the theme. It is very amusing though, and creates a colourful scene in one of Annemarie Woods' beautifully designed and eye-catching sets for the production.

What matters perhaps just as much as any psychological exploration of Don Giovanni, or attempt to apply his behaviour to a deeper evil that we recognise in our own times, is how his behaviour affects others. In that respect, the murder of Donna Anna's father the Commendatore and Don Giovanni's attempted rape or seduction of Donna Anna is clearly an important factor in bringing the Don to justice. Don Ottavio's role in the work can tend to be overlooked, but he too suffers from the consequences of what has happened between Don Giovanni and Donna Anna. Some productions have daringly suggested that Donna Anna is complicit or at least a willing and participant in Don Giovanni's seductions, before it perhaps goes too far.

Oliver Mears doesn't seem to be too concerned with such nuances or interpretations. To do so would be to again place too much attention into one area when you could as easily make the case that Donna Elvira's betrayal and her self-delusions are just as important to shining a light on the activities and nature of Don Giovanni (it is to Donna Elvira of course that Leporello reveals the list of his masters conquests across Europe). As indeed is the manner in which the servants Zerlina and Masetto, and perhaps by extension the sanctity of the institution of marriage, are treated with callous disregard by Don Giovanni. All have equal weight in Mozart and Da Ponte's great work and Oliver Mears and Nicholas Chalmers allow the music Mozart writes for each of the characters to speak for them.

They also bear in mind that the comedy is important and that Leporello is a perfect conduit between the comedy and the tragedy of Don Giovanni, that Don Giovanni gets his comeuppance in the end (an unusually wet one here rather than the usual fiery one, but no less effective or spectacular for it), and that it's by a joining of forces of his victims that this result is brought about. As such, if you are going to place the emphasis on the ensemble nature of Don Giovanni as an opera, there's only one thing that is important, and that's the singing. Which means there are eight things to get right, and - as is evident from looking at the cast list alone - it's clear that NI Opera have assembled the strongest possible team with a good mix of local, UK and international talent.

There's room to identify with the predicament of any of the characters, but for me it was Hye-Youn Lee who made the strongest case for Donna Anna's suffering. It's a technically demanding role, but Lee (who I've also seen sing Scottish Opera's Madama Butterfly) has the capability and the lyricism required for expression of these deep emotions. It helped also that there was a Don Ottavio of equal lyricism in Sam Furness, who made an often overlooked role come to life in a warm and sympathetic way. It's not quite clear how the vengeful Commendatore makes his comeback here, as his statue is packed on-board even before he is killed, but Clive Bayley's voice was enough to put the fear of god into anyone. Rachel Kelly's Donna Elvira really was also a woman on a mission (her fancy-dress costume even had something of Joan of Arc appearance to it), the singing full of character, her appearances hitting that difficult spot between the comedy of her interventions and the tragic nature of her circumstances.

The last time I saw John Molloy I thought he struggled with the demands of the Verdi bass role as Banquo in Macbeth, but he's perfectly at home in the lighter comedy bass roles. Leporello is still a challenge well above something like Doctor Dulcamara, but Molloy was superb, making it look easy, giving the role energy and fire. If the lyricism wasn't always there in the catalogue aria ('Madamina, il catalogo è questo'), it was probably more to do with it being sung in English. That was something that also hindered the more nuanced expressions of Henk Neven's Don Giovanni, but his performance nonetheless captured that tricky combination of charisma, sleaze, arrogance and authority that is needed. Last and far from least Aoife Miskelly played a light, playful and skittish Zerlina alongside Christopher Cull's insecure but devoted Masetto, both raising the level of the two servants and their humble love to a level of equal importance that is vital to the purpose of the work and this production as a whole.

If some of the singing was on the light side, Nicholas Chalmers did his best to balance the weight and measure of the orchestral playing to keep the translation audible. Lightness of touch is often better with Mozart, as much for the treatment of the drama as for the openness it gives to instrumental colour and for the lyrical character it's necessary to have in the voices. Without losing any of that character, the drama and the coming together of the piece as an ensemble takes on a momentum of its own towards that darker conclusion. Even there, the lightness of touch is consistent and telling, Don Giovanni appropriately meeting his end via an object - a hairdryer dropped by the Commendatore in his private pool - that highlights another fatal flaw in his character; his vanity.  Shocking stuff!

Links: NI Opera