by Rachel Beaumont

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Remain calm: Don Giovanni at the ROH

Don Giovanni
Royal Opera
Royal Opera House
Balcony Standing D31, £13
17 July 2018
ROH page

I dislike Kasper Holten’s production of Don Giovanni so much that I almost didn’t attend this run, even though it has a conductor I like, lots of singers I like and of course is Possibly the Best Opera Ever. I’m glad I went in the end, but I’m still going to spend a portion of the below kvetching about all the stupid stupidness Holten doles out. Arrrrggh.

I’ll try to purge it all in one go so we can focus on the good stuff (not something Holten allows in situ grrrr kvtch grragg aggrahgg). It’s pretty bold to base your entire concept on projections when it’s an emerging medium and the technology is still a bit scatty and by now the whole thing reminds me of nothing so much as Microsoft Office: a visually repulsive poor imitation of a hundred better products. Watching stupid pixels stutter stupidly across Es Devlin’s stupid spinny box had me white-knuckle clutching at the support bar you get at D31 imagining a Hulk-like rage as I tore it off and swung it round my head in an abandonment of annoyance.

But the worst bit is the finale, i.e. the best bit of Possibly the Best Opera Ever, where Holten deploys his male-centric pseudo psychological bullshit thing like he does in every single production of his I’ve seen. Don Giovanni suddenly seems to be driven mad by loneliness, having had until then a fine old time. The real Leporello disappears and is replaced by a ghostly Leporello who’s not really there and is a figment of Don G’s imagination but still unfortunately has to sing the music Mozart and Da Ponte gave him, which now doesn’t make any sense. Mad Don G self-hatingly holds an imaginary party with imaginary food and the imaginary-yet-real Leporello and imaginary-yet-real musicians and whatever the Commendatore is supposed to be and then crucially doesn’t get taken down to hell, despite the chorus of demons and all the fiery music, but instead, uh, dies of loneliness? I guess?

Never mind. It teaches me for being such a literalist, and who needs fire on stage when you’ve got Minkowski in the pit? (Smooooth segue.) He really is very good, and like in Idomeneo at the ROH a few years ago seems to flog the orchestra into a terrified prickly urgency, all pointy accents and nervy precision, where even the beauty of an adagio has a ticking alarm about it that I think works wonderfully in Mozart’s ever-cycling energy. What Minkowski didn’t have in this performance was much connection with the singers; in almost every movement singers and orchestra parted company with such consistency that despite some sluggardliness from certain singers Minkowski must take the main responsibility.

Though not ideal, this unwanted independence of pit and stage didn’t actually upset me that much, and I think that’s because even if they weren’t together they were individually excellent; or in the singers’ case good to excellent, as I’d hoped for from the line-up. Hrachuhi Bassenz as Donna Elvira is on the good rather than excellent side, her blowsy sound not particularly exciting but otherwise on the money with the notes. Chen Reiss is I think just what you want from Zerlina, a touch quiet but a classic soubrette. I’ll confess to thinking Willard White a little bit past it in recent years but perhaps the role or the venue tapped a remaining seam, his Commendatore pronouncements sounding suitably earth-rocking.

Mariusz Kwiecień could probably sleepwalk this role and I think there is a slight sense that he doesn’t need to try any more – although perhaps that’s a valid new approach to the role. He still has a lot of fun with it and gruesomely oozes charisma. Ildebrando D’Arcangelo’s only failing in this performance was his timing, often falling way behind Minkowski’s agitated beat; otherwise this was a Leporello masterclass, with a great buffo sound and character. Similarly, you might not get a better Don Ottavio nowadays than Pavol Breslik; he’s not the loudest but sings with control and dignified sophistication, completely making the case for Ottavio as ordinary rather than boring. And lastly there’s Rachel Willis-Sørensen’s Donna Anna. I’m not going to go into complete raptures as there were a handful of moments where I thought she sounded a touch pinched or tired – but otherwise what a wonderful sound, filling the auditorium with a plangent silvery gorgeousness like the best of them.

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