The curtain rises on the white façade of a building filling the entire stage (the ingenious set is designed by Es Devlin) and, as the overture proceeds, video projections by Luke Hall start to cover the façade with the names of women, slowly and large to begin with, then small and frantically, until the entire wall is covered with the names of Don Giovanni’s many conquests.
The Don enters on an upper level with Donna Anna, the latest of the names to be added to the list, and she is struggling to restrain him, not so that he can be arrested but apparently to extract further delights from the notorious seducer. Her father, the Commendatore, enters on ground level in night attire, carrying a nasty-looking knife, and knocks awkwardly on a door to draw Don Giovanni outside. But if it is the Commendatore’s house, as the libretto tells us, why is he knocking on his own front door? So far, so confusing.
Malin Byström (Donna Anna) is comforted by Daniel Behle's Don Ottavio. Photo: Mark Douet
After Don Giovanni despatches the Commendatore with his own knife, the façade splits to reveal the structure of a house on two levels with multiple staircases, very reminiscent of Escher’s drawing of an endless staircase. Gradually we realise that we were not in the Commendatore’s house in the first scene but Don Giovanni’s and here we remain for the rest of the evening with the structure endlessly revolving while a kaleidoscope of projections, sometimes stunning, sometimes kitsch, cover it like lace.
Only when Zerlina and Masetto’s wedding party arrive is any sense of time or place established and we discover from the costumes – and somewhat to our surprise – that we are in 19-century Lutheran Scandinavia, not the first location that springs to mind for scenes of debauch but no doubt close to Mr Holten’s heart. The setting is 19th-century and so, unfortunately, are the sexual politics. There is no hint of the women in this production being the victims of a compulsive and violent womaniser: on the contrary, they are all, frankly, gagging for it.
Despite his murdering her father, Donna Anna soon disappears upstairs for another bout with the Don and only feigns horror at the Don’s behaviour when with her betrothed, Ottavio. When the Don sings the famous Serenade beneath the window to Donna Elvira’s maid, the maid descends the stairs in a trance and strips naked in front of him, without him having to raise a finger. (Really? Yes, really.) Most disturbing of all, in the party scene at the end of Act 1, Zerlina goes off enthusiastically into an upper room with the Don, only to start yelling the operatic equivalent of ‘rape’ as soon as they are alone together, tearing her own clothes to provide evidence.
Soprano Louise Alder makes a notable Royal Opera House house debut as Zerlina. Photo: Mark Douet
So not only are the women in Holten’s production hot for the Don, they try to entrap innocent seducers with false allegations of rape. This is not a production for the #MeToo generation. The explanation (although not the justification) for all this comes right at the end of the opera. The upper level of the house gradually fills with ghost-like figures of the people the Don has destroyed – not just cast-off lovers, but also the Commendatore and finally, his conflicted servant Leporello too. Apparently, we have been inside the Don's head all along, and the production is part mental-breakdown, part male fantasy.
All of this, and more, could have become highly irritating if it had not been for a highly accomplished and likeable cast, with two notable house debuts. The Italian bass Roberto Tagliavini sang Leporello with a nobility that would have suited Don Giovanni (if the Don had been a noble noble). And Louise Alder, the English soprano who walked off with the Audience Prize at the 2017 Cardiff Singer of the World, made Zerlina a feisty, flesh-and-blood character through her energetic stage presence and full-blooded singing.
Malin Byström as Donna Anna rode the whitewater rapids of 'Non mi dir' with aplomb and Daniel Behle’s Ottavio produced exquisitely soft and elegant singing in 'Dalla sua pace' (but was almost inaudible in the – admittedly impossible – 'Il mio tesoro').
Myrtò Papatanasiu as Donna Elvira calls to mind Maria Callas. Photo: Mark Douet
In the title role, Erwin Schrott, a noted bari-hunk, kept his shirt on for almost the first time in his professional career and sang the final scene with thrilling intensity, his huge voice matching decibel for decibel the brass in the orchestra which the conductor, Hartmut Haenchen, unleashed as if the historically-informed performance movement had never happened.
The performance took place on the 42nd anniversary of the death of Maria Callas so
it was a happy coincidence that a Greek soprano was the third debutant of the
evening. Myrtò Papatanasiu was replacing the previously announced Christine Rice
as Elvira and, after a slightly tentative start, gave an accomplished account of “Mi tradi”. She even looks a little like Callas.
Don Giovanni is sung in Italian with English surtitles. Further performances are on 19, 22, 25, 28 Sept; 3, 8, 10 Oct
|What||Don Giovanni, Royal Opera House review|
|Where||Royal Opera House, Bow Street, Covent Garden, London, WC2E 9DD | MAP|
|Nearest tube||Covent Garden (underground)|
16 Sep 19 – 10 Oct 19, eight performances, times vary. Running time: 3hr 30min
|Website||Click here for more information and booking|