The current season of ENO opened with a new production of Don Giovanni, and I gave a little 'eek' when I realised that it was nearly at the end of the run before I'd got around to arranging to see it. I have seen 'quite a few' productions before,* but it is the greatest opera ever written and each of them has shone a new light on it even if, as in the case of ENO's last but one production, it was on how not to do it.** But if I am ever allowed to direct it, it's this one I shall shamelessly steal – erm, improve – the idea of the opening from.
For those of you who haven't seen it yet, the opening features Don Giovanni being disturbed with his latest conquest, Donna Anna, by the arrival of her father, the Commendatore. The latter is killed and given how long it is since it was first performed, it shouldn't be a spoiler that this is not the last we see of him… Watching and commentating on all this is Don Giovanni's servant, Leporello.
So there are two questions that the director has to think about because they affect how we see the Don from the start. The first is how consensual is the relationship between Don Giovanni and Donna Anna. The libretto has Don Giovanni masked and one of the problems between them is that he won't tell her who he is, but is it attempted rape? The second is how accidental is the killing of the Commendatore: is it murder, manslaughter or misadventure?
During the overture, this one has a series of women walk past Don Giovanni and Leporello, stop, turn round and go through one of a series of doors with him before coming out again. I've seen others where this sort of thing has happened, including ones like this where there's also been one man in the queue of conquests. What doesn't convince me is that he doesn't do anything to pick them up: we're expected to believe that merely walking past is enough to get the stream of nine or so people into bed. It's fair to say that the role isn't performed here by Brad Pitt. The other improvement would be to have some of the people exiting the door be adjusting their clothing / having their skirt tucked into their knickers at the back or something.
I guessed that the last in the queue would be Donna Anna and indeed it was. The moment I sat up was where the set opened up and there were two rooms, one of which had the pair inside. There is some mimed negotiation and Donna Anna wants a masked man wielding a knife to 'assault' her. Even better, her father enters the other room with a woman very unlikely to be his wife who he begins to top! He hears Donna Anna's cries, enters the other room and is 'You want it? You have it' stabbed by the Don.
It fails to work with the plot – Donna Anna is supposed to only realise later that Don Giovanni is the one who's killed her father etc – but it's nearly brilliant.
What I'd do is project something like the screen of someone using Tindr etc during the overture. With a masked profile picture, the Don is going 'yes' to anything in a skirt, and ends up in text conversation with Donna Anna who says that her fantasy is… But I'd keep the Commendatore being up to some extra-marital sex in the next room.
Alas, that's the highlight. Some of the other ideas – like having Donna Anna's boyfriend, Don Ottavio, be her husband rather than just engaged to her – are pointless and contradict small bits of the plot. Some – like having the statue of the Commendatore be as unlike marble (what they're singing he is) as it's possible to be.. up until he enters the room, when he's a bit marble, but more like the resurrected body – are 'huh?' Another of the latter is the number of doors people go through for no very good reason. Some ideas – like having Don Giovanni attempt to seduce a servant over the phone rather than by standing underneath her window*** – are mostly harmless, but serve to raise a question or two. The call's made from a phone box with a rotary dial, so when is this set?
The final idea – having Don Giovanni escape Hell by sending Leporello in his place – is something I've never seen before, is sort of in character, but only works here in terms of explaining WTF someone looking like Leporello's clone has been pointedly wandering through the scenes throughout: he just replaces Leporello as the servant and it's back to the opening corridor and its stream of walking past, stopping, and… It could work, perhaps, but my favourite ending is still that of the Francesca Zambello production for the ROH, where we see a naked Don in Hell, carrying an equally naked woman.****
The set design – a series of greys and drab olive (taken from tank camouflage paint tins?) – is uninspiring and the rest of the design isn't up to much either, with the exception of having Leporello look like Michael Caine. The English translation is also ok rather than great.
But you could close your eyes and listen to this one, and I'm very glad to have seen it.
Two more performances: Monday and Wednesday. I'd bought a 'secret ticket' – you pay £20 and only find out where you're seated the day before. I'd guessed that it having been at the Tkts booth in Leicester Square for £30 meant that it was likely to be a good seat rather than up in the balcony, and ended up in the middle of the fourth row of the dress circle, normal price £125.
* A quick count says about twelve 'live in theatre' ones, some of which were seen more than once, plus a couple of 'live from..' satellite broadcasts and at least half a dozen on DVD.
** Normally, if the production is badly directed and designed, you can shut your eyes and listen, but even the singing was poor in this one.
*** Best line from any 'outside the window' production was one in the mid-90s: 'This worked quicker at Kensington Palace…' Now Princess Diana is long dead but we've another woman PM, you could have 'Downing Street'.
**** This was the production I paid HOW MUCH to see live and was definitely worth the money. Sky Arts were showing it at one point and it's also available on DVD.