Clive Bayley and Christopher Purves photograph by Robert Workman
Richard Jones is a director whose work I admire. I think I was one of the few critics who appreciated his Ring cycle – images from which continue to haunt me whenever I hear certain passages, such as the shamed Brünnhilde being taken back as Gunther’s bride to the Gibichung Hall, her head covered in a Kraft paper brown grocery bag. Or Wotan in Rheingold as a traffic warden, his lollipop-headed staff establishing the conventions of driving.
So I was looking forward mightily to Jones’s Don Giovanni – which, I suppose, is Mozart’s most Wagnerian opera, in that it is Mozart (and Da Ponte’s) most all-encompassing, most complete and universal opera. The Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard said in Either/Or (where I think I remember him also saying that Don Giovanni is a perfect work of art): Because Don Giovanni desires in each and every woman the whole of womanhood, his behaviour has to be judged aesthetically, not ethically. Jones has, I think, taken this seriously.
He shows us that everyone involved is damaged, at least a bit crazy, from Elvira’s hysteria, to Ottavio’s softness, Zerlina’s flightiness, Anna’s randiness, Masetto’s pugnacity combined with biddableness, to Leporello’s sly cunning. These traits are bound to lead to anarchy, and so they do, as at Don Giovanni’s party the social order teeters on the brink of disintegration. Jones puts it all right (or, perhaps, all wrong) by changing the ending. I shan’t give this away, because it’s one of the great coups de théâtre I’ve ever witnessed, and it would be a spoiler to reveal it. But I can say that it is a change that actually is an improvement on Da Ponte, though I also think it carries out what you might term Mozart and Da Ponte’s deeper intentions, those thwarted by the conventional mores and especially theology of their day.
It also solves a dramaturgical problem. Following the 1787 Prague première of the opera, most productions omitted the concluding sestet, “Mend your ways, and mend them well.” How can Leporello, Massseto, Zerlina, Anna, Ottavio and Elvira, every one of which has been naughty, sing these words without a trace of irony? Every since the late 18th century, producers have stumbled over this, and usually decided simply to leave it out. Jones has found the way to imbue these lines with rich irony. He also clears up another question for me: Why did Mozart make his lead characters, the Don and Leporello, both baritones?
The cast of this production is terrific. Christine Rice’s Elvira is superb, and Caitlin Lynch as Anna. Mary Bevan as Zerlina are terrific. Christopher Purves’s Don is not the tall, thin, young and handsome swashbuckler of Douglas Fairbanks and Errol Flynn, but has a shaved head and is verging on middle-age, while there’s nothing boyish about Clive Bayley’s Leporello either. Nicholas Crowley’s boxing-enthusiast Masseto has got it just right. Ditto James Cresswell’s wounded-in-the-groin Commendatore. I loved Nicky Gillibrand’s sexy black contemporary dresses for the rotating ladies in the Don’s life, and Paul Steinberg’s very-plain-indeed sets do the trick, too. And bravo for the orange Donald Trump-wig that plays such a vital part in the production.
There are a few things that could be done to improve this nearly wonderful production. There is no need for the house lights to go up so quickly as to punish the audience at the end of the first half; or for the stark stage lighting to seem to be projected from the back of the house; or for the lighting to be so generally uncomfortable-making. We don’t need to be further alienated from what’s happening on stage by the lighting – the music, libretto and Jones’s direction are sufficient to ensure a Brechtian distance from the goings-on.
Singing in English brings its own problems. Amanda Holden’s libretto seems pretty good. I especially appreciated the absence of the now-usual smuttiness and raunchiness in her version of Zerlina’s second aria, “Vedrai, carino.” (I’ve actually seen one version where the surtitles said the equivalent of: “I carry the balm on my person, here between my legs.”) But the vowels of English sometimes challenge singers – as, for example, when Ottavio has an ornamented passage where he has to sustain the tricky, even when spoken, vowel sound of “calm.” What is the reason for omitting surtitles in many of the recitatives? Do the producers think that because the orchestra is generally quieter or even still during these passages we can hear what the singers are saying in our own language? They’re wrong if they do. It seems a touch perverse to have surtitles for the arias, which many of us know, or at least can follow, even in Italian, while leaving them off for the linguistically busier recitatives.