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Opera Review: Don Giovanni at The Barbican


By John Sidgwick

LONDON, 24 July 2002 - The second weekend of the Barbican's "Mostly Mozart" series witnessed two semi-staged performances of this year's Garsington Opera production of Don Giovanni.

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.

Don 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.

Garsington's 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 and manner.

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.

Garsington Opera Web Site: www.garsingtonopera.org

John Sidgwick writes on music in Britain and France for Culturekiosque.com.

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