Apparently on the first night of Don Giovanni one of those supersized Glyndebourne programmes tumbled out of the upper circle into the orchestra pit. It happened at the start of the overture. And no wonder. You’re sitting in the golden-wood surrounds chatting with your partner, waiting for the gentle dimming of lights, the applauded entry of the conductor and…instead the lights plunge and wham, they’re off. You’re catapulted into darkness. In every sense. The theatre is black, but for one light on Vladimir Jurowski. The lamps on the orchestra’s music stands are off too for the first minutes; they’ve memorised it.
From that first chord there is no mistaking the demonaic intent of this Don Giovanni. We’re not talking post-modern irony with Jonathan Kent’s new production, nor any equivocal stance-taking on the musical side. This Don – human though he is, Gerald Finlay proving so at every turn – is mad, bad and dangerous. And when he seduced those 1003 Spanish women he must have been on holiday, because we are most definitely in Italy.
Indeed we are, essentially, in a Fellini film. And it works – all the more so if you’re still biting back the sour flavour of Glyndebourne’s last Don Giovanni production from Graham Vick, which featured rusty radiators and a dead horse.
The revolving block at the centre of the stage is a kind of deconstructed Italian cathedral/palazzo: huge stone blocks, giant porticoed doors, florid paintings of Renaissance nudes. In it and around it the action takes shape in a semi-timeless version of 1940s/50s Italy, with arthouse lighting, symbolism made strong in the battle of good and evil, and a soft snow shower settling around Giovanni as he sings his Serenade, utterly alone for once. A hushed stillness crept round the house at this moment: it was the emotional heart of the whole opera, the Don singing only to the snow and the truth of his own depraved soul, face to face with his entire raison d’etre.
Zerlina and Masetto are fresh out of their wedding ceremony; Zerlina remains in white throughout, transformed into a symbol of redemption through true love and open sensuality; I half expected her to take a splash in the Trevi fountain (but no). She’s an avenging angel, too, tying up Leporello with great relish in a scene that is rarely included. Meanwhile Masetto’s shoes are a strong indication that Giovanni, pouncing on his bride, is ill-advisedly messing with the Mafia. Poor Elvira attends the masked ball (or orgy in this case) in a Pierrot jumpsuit. Ottavio, portrayed as an older man, is entirely convincing for once in his operatic life, although he doesn’t get to sing ‘Il mio tesoro’.
There’s no stinting on the evil, the cruelty. I’ve always had a question about Don Giovanni‘s drama: as Da Ponte follows the ‘unity of time, place and action’ principle, how come the Commendatore’s statue has been erected upon his completed grave within 24 hours of his murder? Here it hasn’t. The grave gapes; the body is therein; Giovanni forces Leporello to unwrap him to issue the dinner invitation. It is the corpse who comes to dinner and whose bloodstained embrace drags the Don quite horribly away from life. The end comes as suddenly as the beginning, the final ensemble truncated over the Don’s bloodstained body.
Anna Samuil’s Donna Anna is strong and steely both in voice and presence, despite one moment of shaky intonation. Anna Virovlansky enchanted and sparkled as Zerlina, her two arias an oasis of beauty amid the moral morass; Elvira, sung by Kate Royal, was convincingly frail, but in the first act this seemed to extend to her voice – she sounded much better in the second half, delivering a galvanising ‘Mi tradi’. Gerald Finlay and Luca Pisaroni as Giovanni and Leporello plunged through the drama in white heat.
But it was the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and Vladimir Jurowski who stole the show. This is Vlad’s piece. The strong pace with no breaks between recits and arias, the urgent tempi, the icy cruelty that threw mirror images from sound to vision and back again – everything melded into a positively modern gesammtkunstwerk. The work’s granite-strong heart was extracted and polished until its essence shone clear. You could hear that they believed, and believed in, every note and every word. And so did we.
Some of my colleagues appear not to have liked this production; the impression is that it has divided its audiences. I can’t imagine why. It’s absolutely brilliant.
Last night’s show was filmed and will be broadcast on BBC2 later in the year. Audiences outside the UK can watch it right now online, courtesy of Medici TV.
(Above: Gerald Finlay as Don Giovanni and Anna Samuil as Donna Anna, photo by Bill Cooper)