The Manchester Review

Opera North’s Don Giovanni

Don Giovanni at the Lowry, Salford
Wednesday, 7 March 2018

Opera North’s staging of Mozart’s Don Giovanni is a charged mixture of moving parts, pared down scenery with dramatic lighting and comic puppetry. Madeleine Boyd’s set plays with stages within stages and frames within frames that create movement, depth, and distance that leaves just enough space for the real point of it all: the music. Mozart is supposed to have said something like music is not in the notes but in the silence between, and this staging created silences that gave us time to look and feel though the sound in a way that opened up the music beautifully. It was, I thought, particularly lovely to be given the space to imagine and feel your way into the work for an Opera beginner like myself.

And beginners, we are told in the opening arias, are Don Giovanni’s favourite: his servant Leporello (played with pretty perfect humour and pitch by John Savournin) and our guide through the story lists with extravagant specificity number of woman his master has counted as conquests around Europe, highlighting his preference for the innocent. Lepoello wishes he could leave Don Giovanni’s service while we see Don Giovanni attempting to rape Donna Anna (Jennifer Davis) through a window in the back of the stage. But he doesn’t leave him and neither do we, we watch his every move with bated breath.

The window at the stage’s back mirrored the frame periodically set in the stage curtain, and each were used to great effect throughout. They worked both to double action and to focus it. The production is full of mirroring and doubling, paring the murderer and the murdered, the master and the man, and also in some way the audience and the players. There were a few beautifully physical sections with some great dancing from the principals and chorus that contrasted sharply with more desperate, dark moments when the stage was dark apart from one of the smaller stages. A couple of the duets where performed in an almost painterly light, with only heads and torsos held by one of the gilt frames but the frames also worked as stages for Punch and Judy style puppet sections.

William Dazeley as Don Giovanni was creepy: long and lithe and comic in a way that complicated the idea that watching him rape and seduce women is okay because the devil gets him in the end. He is the archetypal villain whose “love” of women is matched by his expert manipulations and magical control over doors (in one scene he directs the opening and shutting of six doors from a perch above the stage, it’s fabulous). But we were charmed by this version of Don Giovanni, the elegant movements and souring voice meant that we only boo-ed him playfully at the end and there is as always something troubling in art that figures evil. It’s true at the end he is confronted by his badness and strings fly down from the wings so that the master puppeteer and manipulator becomes a puppet himself but he flies up and away rather than sinking into obscurity and we’ve still spent the whole play listening to him sing with open hearts.

I did wonder if there was an attempt to mediate this problem of making evil misogyny sound so beautiful in the strange time travel but I couldn’t quite understand how it was meant to be working. There was a kind of steam-punk use a digital clock that spun us from 25 of April 1955 to 16 June 1861 to the date of the performance. The costumes where a mixture of romantic Victorian and vaguely 1950s dance gear, interesting to look at but a hard to work out what, if anything, they meant. And Donna Elvira in driving goggles and wigs so she was a kind of time traveller sent to stop Giovanni’s naughtiness and failing. It might have been an attempt to show how sexual abuse by men like Giovanni is still ongoing but I’m not sure it worked. Elizabeth Atherton whose performance of the horrific realisation that Donna Elvira still loves Don Giovanni was breath taking and heart breaking, took off the one wig in a moment of broken mortality and failing artifice which was great but then she swapped wigs(from a shaggy blond to smooth one) for no clear reason that I could see but it didn’t really matter.

In the interval I overheard someone say that they didn’t understand the time travel and their companion reply “just don’t think about it too much and its fine.” Which realistically is the only sensible way to deal with any time travel and about five minutes into the second half I found that it was fine. The spectacle, the waves of affect, the beauty of the sound from the orchestra in the pit and the cast on stage all meant that I was too busy being beguiled by it all to worry too much about sense.

by Tessa Harris

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