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Don Giovanni

by on 1 June 2019

Ready Player Juan

Don Giovanni

by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, libretto Lorenzo da Ponte

Rogue Opera at Hampton Hill Theatre, until 1 June, then on tour until 9th June

Review by Matthew Grierson

Setting itself in the Milanese fashion scene, and a post-#MeToo world in particular, this production of Mozart’s tragicomic opera exhibits a sharp dress sense and sharper satire.

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When we arrive, the Hampton Hill stage is furnished with clothes rails, a trolley of champagne and design sketches, as well as a selection of mannequin torsos and legs that signify the objectification of women we are to witness from the saturnine young antihero (Theo Perry). For a moment, all is bathed in the violent violet light of a nightclub toilet, ready to disclose his crimes clinically and coldly.

The show opens as Don Giovanni anoints himself with fragrance while preparing a parade of models for the catwalk, to the accompaniment of MD Guy Murgatroyd’s piano overture. But it’s clear that the Don has his mind less on the women’s clothes than their bodies, and before long he is menacing Donna Anna (Alexandra Cowell) in her dressing room in a manner that leaves no doubt about her lack of consent.

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As he leers over her prone form, his assault is interrupted by her father the Commendatore (Ian Shenstone), and after what is an oddly underpowered fight Giovanni is mirroring his earlier pose, this time leaning over the dead body of his victim. Once he has fled and the crime is discovered, the corpse is wittily hidden by the other cast members using a clothes rail – as with the title character, horror is clothed in well-cut jackets and trousers, and I felt the show might have made, and indeed wanted to make, more of this conceit in its staging.

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Certainly the production makes adept use of two wheel-mounted screens that the cast seamlessly turn to change scenes from a swanky bar to Giovanni’s penthouse, complete with art gallery. Stage right, one screen also becomes the studio for Giovanni’s valet-cum-tailor Leporello, its corner lined with blown-up measuring tape. Leporello also carries such a tape around his neck showing that, even when he connives to with his master to ensnare women, he has his measure. As the manservant, André Andrade’s performance is a highlight among a strong cast, treading with careful footsteps between comedy, collusion and caution.

In this respect, he is as equivocal about his boss’s behaviour as the unfortunate Donna Elvira (Anna Sideris) is about her quondam paramour. As we are introduced to her, she is ripping pages from a fashion magazine and swearing to do the same with Giovanni’s heart, but cannot be rid of her attraction to him all the same. The parallel between the spurned lover and reluctant retainer is established in the first act as he recounts the list of his master’s conquests to the unfortunate woman, all the time counting off their numbers on the measuring tape he holds against her; I was reminded not so much of a dressmaker as an undertaker, preparing to bury her romance. But by act two, both Elvira and Leporello are back under the Don’s sway, as he invites his manservant to take advantage of the blindfolded woman in his stead.

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There’s always a hint of a smile before Sideris sings, giving the unpleasant suggestion Elvira finds the relationship as much of a game as Giovanni does; and yet we know from her arias that this is not the case, with the added detail in this production that she is carrying both his child and an ultrasound image of the foetus. But if this production wants to highlight the agency of women then seeking to marry Giovanni, despite his evident errancy, for the benefit of their baby doesn’t speak to Elvira’s good judgement.

Greater independence is demonstrated by the model Zerlina: though not a player in Giovanni’s league, she is no sooner betrothed to photographer Masetto than she is flirting with the Don himself, and in Maya Colwell’s playful performance she dances and sings in convincing chemistry with both men. Plaudits are also due to Edwin Dizer as her hapless fiancé: the sweet dance that signifies their engagement is soon after recapitulated with steps that I can only describe as sarcastic, thanks to Michelle Buckley’s capable choreography. Just to confirm Dizer’s physical comedy credentials, he is also given the opportunity for some fine drunk acting – and singing – opposite the Don in the second act.

As the titular character, meanwhile,  Perry cuts a dark, lithe young figure. Although perhaps lacking the rakish gravitas and presence an older actor would bring to the role, he describes the inevitable arc of Giovanni’s dissolution and descent into hell with a gradually ratcheted mania, and there is scope in his aria early in act two to see him pathologising himself as a sex addict. He also has a believable appeal as a brooding hipster that convinces us he has bedded as many women as Leporello claims – and this bearing in mind that the only two instances of ‘seduction’ to which we are witness can only euphemistically be called such, especially given that the first is the attempted rape of Donna Anna.

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Occurring so near the start, this episode serves as the thematic overture to this production, and resonates strongly with our contemporary consciousness. As Donna Grierson pointed out to me, the surtitled translations do not deal with an antiquated concept of honour but rather talk in terms of crimes against women themselves. With such an emphasis, the death of the Commendatore is merely confirmation of Giovanni’s criminality rather than representing his tragic overstepping of the mark.

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All the same, it’s around this one man’s death rather than subjugation of women that the campaign to bring Giovanni to justice is organised by Ottavio. As Anna’s fiancé, Hugh Benson makes for a sympathetic ally – even though Ottavio makes some poor choices about the timing of his proposals – and by the end of act one, he has put word out on social media of Giovanni’s crimes, and the culprit ends up surrounded by the accusing light of an array of smartphones.

While the surtitles have been used sneakily to flash up Giovanni’s hook-ups on dating app ‘Findr’, this clever device is not used sufficiently to establish it in the audience’s imagination, so when Anna and Ottavio first spread word of the crimes it’s the reaction among Milan’s fashionistas that tells us rather than any projection across the top. Similarly, although Giovanni’s art collection is stripped away at the end to reveal a string of damning hashtags, it’s not clear why these too aren’t conveyed by the more contemporary digital medium.

For a production supposedly set in the world of haute couture, it’s an odd decision too to make the cast sport an improbably unfashionable get-up combining wedding hats and graduation gowns when they assume the role of chorus. The staging also seems to miss a trick in that the mannequins, so long a place where Giovanni and Leporello can project their fantasies and desires, become in turn a locus for their frightened subconscious when the ghost of the Commendatore raises the arm of one into an accusatory gesture. With the opera’s famously figural ending in mind might more have been made of this, or would it have been too technically difficult to achieve?

As it is, it is Shenstone as the statuesque spectre of the Commendatore that drags Giovanni off to hell. Does the ending, abrupt when it does come, deny human justice or embody it? Honour seems to be finally at stake when it hasn’t been before, although there is a sense that Giovanni has, in taking up the ghost’s invitation, having to consent to his own doom, when he hasn’t been seen to seek the consent of the women he pursued.

There’s no doubt that, for all its small scale, Don Giovanni is thinking big. While it doesn’t always have the impact it might, director Bronwen Stephens-Harding and the Rogue team are to be commended for their ambition.

Matthew Grierson

May 2019

Photography by Cristina Schek

From → Opera, Reviews

One Comment
  1. Great post 🙂

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