Kasper Holten’s tech-heavy Don Giovanni has been trotted out on the ROH stage for the third time. The eye-catching set is unquestionably the most remarkable thing about this production. Unfortunately, it detracts from, rather than adds to, the performance, leaving one wondering where Holten’s priorities lie.
Inspired by Escher’s labyrinthine illusions, Es Devlin’s set places the story of licentious seducer Don Giovanni in a series of rooms that morph and shift endlessly. The revolving rooms and staircases convey a sense of clandestine meetings, endless corridors and sexual subterfuge - in short, the atmosphere of Don Giovanni. Luke Halls’ video designs breathe life to the architecture with an ever-changing backdrop, choreographed precisely onto the moving set. Red splotches of blood for the Commendatore’s death; blue summer skies for Don Giovanni’s false tales of seduction; black, treacly teardrops when Don Ottavio sings of the tears of Donna Anna. It’s quite a stunning light show but also rather like watching a giant mood ring display the overall atmosphere of the opera at any one time, which gets a bit annoying.
Holten, known for his controversial interpretations of operas, has cleverly de-victimised Don Giovanni’s conquests. Rather than being a helpless maiden, this Donna Anna is a willing and manipulative accomplice, cavorting with Don Giovanni even as she commands fiancee Don Ottavio to avenge her honour. Zerlina, the newlywed bride who is the next to catch Don Giovanni’s eye, is also no simple-minded country girl. Her accusation of rape at the end of Act 1 is transformed into a ploy on her part, with Zerlina ripping her bodice and crying for help before Don Giovanni ever touches her.
A pity then that the performances were so wooden. There was hardly any chemistry or dramatic tension on stage - characters appeared, sang their lines and disappeared off into the wings again. Malin Byström as Donna Anna bitterly lamented her father’s death - from about three feet away and facing the opposite direction. There was a severe lack of eye-contact, the singers choosing to sing at the audience rather than to each other. Where was the heat and passion of the rakish Don Giovanni, or the tormented vengefulness of the jilted Donna Elvira? Despite the remarkable voices of the singers, everything felt very forced. Combined with the set, it felt like we were watching puppets pop out of a painted music box to deliver their lines at the prescribed times.
This is terribly unfair on the cast, who are in themselves really rather good. Erwin Schrott, in the titular role of unrepentant sinner Don Giovanni, is a commanding, honey-voiced bass-baritone whose potential seems to be unlocked only in the finale. As he rails against the spirit of the Commendatore, steadfastly unrepentant till the end, the defiance and courage of our antihero Don Giovanni finally comes through. Indeed, most of the cast only shone as characters in the second act when the set was less fussy and they had the stage to themselves. One exception was the comic couple, Zerlina (Louise Alder) and Masetto (Leon Košavić), whose natural interactions and strong singing made them welcome relief from the somewhat unconvincing melodrama panning out throughout the first act.
Perhaps one can put it down to opening night and the cast not having settled into their roles or the disorientingly kaleidoscopic set. But for whatever reason, this Don Giovanni just didn’t do it for me. It is a pretty music-box of a production, but the drama and emotion seem to have been sacrificed for fancy light tricks.
- 3 stars