(Hampstead Garden Opera, Upstairs at the Gatehouse, 6 November 2015)
This is well overdue and I hope Hampstead Garden Opera will forgive me, but they can rest assured that my further tentative shuffle out of the Baroque was very enjoyable. Six months after their simple and smart Xerxes, they’ve taken on another heavyweight of the operatic canon and given him their own ineffable twist: none less than the Don himself.
Having only recently seen the Royal Opera House‘s version, which was intellectually and aesthetically striking but lacked an emotional core, I was curious to see how HGO would tackle the story. The result, I’m delighted to say, was yet another conceptually brilliant reading of a familiar story, with generally strong performances and a secret weapon in the form of a sparkling, irreverent English translation by Benjamin Hamilton, who should be greatly commended.
The scene is set in present-day Oxford at a (discreetly) unnamed college. It’s graduation day and students cluster eagerly around for the presentation of diplomas by the Master. Mortarboards are thrown and champagne swigged beneath the benevolent eyes of the academic staff: the Master himself; his professor daughter Anna; her fiancé Ottavio, a serious, anxious college Fellow; and the literature don Giovanni. Everything seems glorious, but in just a few hours Anna will have been sexually assaulted and the Master killed, both by a mysterious masked man.
Helpless in the aftermath of these events, Anna and Ottavio turn for help to their colleague Giovanni, little suspecting how intimately he’s been involved. Events are increasingly complicated by an agitated young girl, Elvira, who’s turned up at the College insisting that Giovanni has made promises to her. Everyone knows that Giovanni, who’s something of a celebrity don, exerts a rare glamour on his impressionable students. None of his fellow dons, however, realise that his interest in these pretty young things is regrettably far from pastoral in nature. This Giovanni thrives on conquest: it’s through sexual intrigue that he gets inspiration for his bestselling novels (in the party scene at his house, we see their covers on posters on the wall: one is titled The Queen of the Night).
As with Xerxes, HGO had two alternating casts for Don G and on this first night I saw Joseph Kennedy in the title role: a perfect fit, from his towering physical presence and air of inviolable privilege to his sensual voice. In that small space he managed to project a charisma which ensnared not only his victims but also the audience. If he felt slightly less devilish than Maltman‘s Don, that fitted with the tone of the piece overall: HGO steer away from the supernatural as much as possible and this is a Giovanni for our own times, shocking not in his spiritual debauchery but in his barren ethics.
As always, Giovanni came across as the most appealing of the four main characters, although I felt Ottavio was much better served here by Timothy Reynolds than he was by the frankly limp Villazón at Covent Garden. Here Ottavio became a very plausible sort of meek, self-effacing academic: he’s used to being overshadowed by his girlfriend but rises to the occasion when said damsel is in distress. In Reynolds’s deft hands he became lovable and earnest, veering between owlish bafflement and the fierce determination of a tenacious gerbil.
I wasn’t quite so convinced by Anna herself, sung by Emma Dogliani, who was a little unstable now and then, and was really pushing for some of her high notes, but I did like her characterisation. One of my issues with the ROH’s production is that Anna seemed too complicit in her seduction: this Anna, by contrast, was evidently a dignified and serious woman who is deeply shocked by the train of events and I thought Dogliani handled her dawning moment of horror and realisation very well.
Sofia Troncoso’s vivacious Zerlina just about managed to convince us of her character’s good intentions despite some deeply questionable behaviour. I found her performance very engaging, to the point that I preferred her to Lezhneva at the ROH. Troncoso’s clear, vibrant soprano was gorgeous and I noted that some judicious cuts were made to give Zerlina a bit more feminist clout (none of this ‘beat me, Masetto’ business here, thank goodness). Instead, this young graduate had her husband-to-be wrapped around her little finger. Masetto, played I think by Shaun Aquilina on the night I went, comes across perfectly as the self-conscious outsider thrust into his fiancee’s university world: Giovanni’s taunting of him as a country bumpkin has the eternal undertones of Town vs Gown at its heart.
Alongside Kennedy there were two other singers who particularly caught my eye. One, perhaps unsurprisingly, was Elvira (a character I’d already warmed to at ROH: after all, she’s the Classical descendent of the Baroque Avenging Rebuffed Girlfriend). Here she was sung by Heather Caddick on blazing form as a London girl descending on Oxford to track down her errant lover, swerving from Valkyrie to vulnerable. Her complicated feelings about Giovanni were made much more credible by the modern setting: we came in after the interval to find Elvira and a friend slumped on the set drinking wine while Elvira swipes gloomily through her iPhone photos of her and Giovanni together (projected onto the back wall), deleting some and tearfully pointing out others. Yes, she hates him; but given half a chance she’d take him back, despite the fire and brimstone.
And last but not least – the star of the show for me – Leporello. It’s very odd that at both HGO productions I’ve been drawn towards the kind of comic characters whom I normally don’t much like. Is it because the space is that much more intimate than usual, meaning that the comedy works better than in a big theatre? Or have they just managed to track down two really gifted actors? Xerxes was memorable for its Elviro; and Don G was brought to life by Samuel Lom’s put-upon postgrad Leporello. Having come to Oxford especially to study with the brilliant Giovanni, he’s found himself transformed into a guard dog, keeping an eye on his master’s rooms and ready to record on his iPad for blackmail purposes. He hates it – hates himself – hates Giovanni – but he’s been seduced in his own way by the don’s intellectual cachet and hopes that, if he helps Giovanni now, it might further his academic career. His grumbling in the first scene made it quite clear that the translation was cheerfully diverging from da Ponte. Sulking, the neglected student appeals to the audience: “Am I supervising him? No! No! He is supervising me!”
This set off a superb performance of hangdog thralldom: Lom is a truly excellent comic actor and he couples that dramatic skill with a strong, rich voice and clear diction. Another of his highlights (I won’t mention the scene where he’s stripped and staked out in the College quad) was the production’s take on Madamina il catalogo è questo. Here, updating the ‘little black book’, Leporello scrolls through his iPad to show off Giovanni’s dating-website activity to the horrified Elvira. Dating profiles flash across the wall at the back of the stage. Giovanni no longer counts women by country, but by platform: 5,000 connections on Tinder (for the sake of argument), 1,000 on OK Cupid, Plenty of Fish etc. The aria becomes a love song to the diversity of assignations made possible by technology and, although da Ponte purists might shudder, I thought it worked wonderfully well.
So, HGO have done it again. I’m afraid the run has now finished but really do keep your ear to the ground for their future projects, because they’re full of very bright ideas. This Don was a delight, with some wonderful performances, an endlessly smart translation and – for me at least – the odd nostalgia of seeing an entire opera staged in subfusc. They really had it right, down to the black tights for the girls (you got told off for flesh-coloured tights). The sophisticated update gave the story a freshness and relevance that completely passed me by at the ROH, and played on very modern themes of online duplicity, personal reputation and teachers abusing positions of authority. A very engaging show. They’re doing Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci next year in May, in their new home at Jackson’s Lane. I’m not sure if I’ll go, as that really is way out of my comfort zone, but there’s little doubt that it’s going to be enormous fun and very cleverly performed.