By John Sidgwick
LONDON, 24 July 2002 - The second weekend of the
"Mostly Mozart" series witnessed two semi-staged
performances of this year's Garsington Opera production of Don
I must confess to a great liking for
semi-staged performances of opera. In general, these are free from the
predatory ambitions of today's producers, who only too often indulge
in ego trips, plastering the stage with their own muddy footprints and
blurred fingerprints to the detriment of the intentions both of
composer and librettist. What you get is singing, acting and the music
of the orchestra, surely the essence of opera. Since most of us opera
enthusiasts have reasonably lively imaginations, we really do not need
more than the simplest props to enable us to plunge for a couple of
hours or so into the drama that unfolds before us.
Giovanni is essentially about the Don himself. Without a
convincing Don, there can be no valid performance. He is the
ever-permanent presence, even when he is off-stage; and just as there
are hosts of convincing but different Hamlets, so there are
plenty of Don Giovanni variants that can carry the day.
Don, the Norwegian-born Tom Erik Lie, is tall, lithe and
thoroughly-aristocratic in his bearing. The respect for him displayed
by the peasants could not be feigned. This was the real thing. Lie
portrayed the charm, the fearlessness and the brutal ruthlessness of
the sort of individual who, frankly, doesn't give a damn. He also
happens to sing very well. The set pieces, including the Champagne
Aria and the Balcony Serenade, were beautifully done (hats
off incidentally to James Ellis, the mandolin player in the Serenade:
audiences are not always aware just how tricky a piece of music this
accompaniment is to perform).
The Don's supporting cast gave
full measure. His servant, Leporello (Robert Poulton) was an admirable
foil to his master, singing and acting with aplomb, but without
exaggeration - it is all too easy to turn the Catalogue Song into a
personal bravura display, instead of an insistent and insidious
intimation to Elvira of the extent of her man's infidilities. The said
Elvira (Emma Bell), the Don's discarded wife, sang and acted very well
indeed. Her voice is full and coloured. Also, she put across Elvira
exactly as she is: a real pain in the neck. The peasant pair of
Masetto and Zerlina were convincingly depicted by Carl Gombrich and
Michelle Walton, the latter at times quite gorgeous in her singing,
and the Commendatore (Brindley Sherratt) was formidable both in voice
I think that I am not alone in feeling real
sympathy for the unfortunate Don Ottavio, the operatic character, that
is. He is about the most hopeless, the most hapless and the most inept
of the multitude of beings who populate the lyrical theatre. He just
stands around and laments in a forlorn fashion, a victim of his love
for Donna Anna. His artistic redemption comes in the shape of two of
Mozart's most splendid arias for tenor. The Garsington production was
happy in its choice of Mark Wilde, for this diminutive tenor delivers
a clear and mellifluous line of exquisite and thoroughly apt taste.
His Donna Anna (Franzita Whelan) was excellent in character portrayal.
We had no doubt what she wanted: the Don himself; the fact that he had
slain her father was merely a burning spice to her desire. It was just
a pity that Whelan's singing, on this occasion at least, was marred by
a forcing of the tone in the upper registers.
The playing of
the Garsington Orchestra, sympathetically conducted by Steuart
Bedford, could not be faulted; moreover, there was a real symbiosis
between instrumentalists and singers. In the hands of the Director,
Stephen Unwin, the limited staging, given the constraints of the
concert hall, turned out to be all that was needed and the fact that
the Don's descent into the infernal regions was not accompanied by
flames and smoke somehow allowed Mozart's music to be afforded its
full and sinister intensity. All in all, full marks.
Opera Web Site: www.garsingtonopera.org
Sidgwick writes on music in Britain and France for Culturekiosque.com.