It's not that Mozart's operas can't be updated, but when they are, surely it is still essential to create a consistent context for the plot and its characters. Don Giovanni, for example, is an aristocrat, yet, in this revival of Rufus Norris's ugly production for English National Opera, there is no visual reference to his social position, nor the significance of his slumming it among the proles. Dressed in late-eighties acid-casual gear – Jesus sweatshirt and hoodie over a suit – the Don is played by Iain Paterson less as a charming rogue and more a psychotic sex maniac, or 'a dirty, lying, whoring, murdering bastard', as his servant Leporello puts it – bass-baritone Darren Jeffrey, a dishevelled oaf rather than wily underling.
Ian MacNeil's fussy sets are at best functional. On a black-box stage, some pieces are simply pushed across for effect, while others have to be permanently manned by masked stagehands; spinning one way to represent the outside of the abode of needy Donna Elvira (a skittish Sarah Redgwick), which resembles a white-tiled toilet block, and then the other to show inside, which one presumes is a brothel.
The singing, thankfully, is of a consistently high standard. Paterson's smooth baritone shifts easily between seductive serenader and berating thug. Soprano Sarah Tynan is ravishing as the teasing Zerlina, with John Molloy, her fiancée Masetto, a convincingly tough macho man (though his wearing a boxing glove to indicate his wife-beating tendencies is rather bad-taste kitsch). Katherine Broderick sings sweetly as Donna Anna, the victim of the Don's predatory activities; her fiancé, Don Ottavio, equally captivating in tenor Ben Johnson. However, there seems to be little chemistry between the lovers, nor any dramatic interaction generally.
Mathew Best is impressive as the Commendatore, the slain father returned from the dead to claim the soul of the Don. Despite his bass voice amplified to good effect, his arrival at the end with a bin-bag over his head says it all about this gaudy production. The subsequent denouement of the Don being dragged off to the back of the stage by a gang of similarly bin-bagged characters hardly constituting a thrilling climax.
While the orchestra plays confidently under Edward Gardner, with the feast for the ears so unconnected to the famine for the eyes, it does little to lift the spirits.
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