Don Giovanni; La bohème; English Music festival – review

Garsington Opera, High Wycombe; Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff; Dorchester Abbey, Oxfordshire

Morality, at the best of times an elusive commodity, is all but absent in Don Giovanni. The usual assumption is that Mozart's predatory lothario is the chief villain. But is anyone else really so wholesome? However prim the women, none is strictly virginal. They rebuke the Don for his fickleness when, Daniel Slater's racy new production for Garsington Opera suggests, they themselves are no better than they ought to be. Their folly is first to fall for a playboy, then to presume that they alone can make him virtuous. The boy next door, dull as hell, would at least have been faithful to the bitter end.

Slater's production takes this basic idea and shouts it across the Chiltern Hills. In Leslie Travers's clean designs, lit by Bruno Poet, the action is updated to sharp, penthouse-capsule luxury: it hardly matters that in this open-plan existence no space has a particular purpose. It's cool modern living. Leporello (Joshua Bloom) is a rough-edged personal bodyguard in peaked cap and shades. Don Ottavio, elegantly sung by Jesús León, calls the emergency services on his mobile. Giovanni's amatory conquests pour forth as data on a computer printout.

The action begins with the evening's most controversial reworking: Donna Anna is caught up in a kinky bondage sex game with the Don which – horror – she seems to be quite enjoying, until it goes wrong and ends in her father's murder. All of a sudden she switches to being the grieving daughter and fiancee, deceived as well as deceiving. How can we sympathise? In fact the programme only refers to her as Anna, played with fiery spirit by Natasha Jouhl. She, like Elvira, is robbed of her "Donna" just as Giovanni and Ottavio are deprived of their "Don". It is all, like this year's redesigned programme book, somewhat sans serif. Mistress Quickly, Lady Billows, Don Carlos: hang on to your handles, it may be your turn next.

Some will find this staging crass, an intrusive perversion of the original Da Ponte text. Were this a conventional proscenium-arch event, such criticisms would be fair. But Slater, his committed and lively young cast and the conductor Douglas Boyd should take credit for trying to make a show suited to the circumstance. The performance starts in broad daylight, nature providing its own drama through the glass-walled pavilion theatre on the Wormsley estate where Garsington is now based. Different solutions are required to hook the audience into the drama. Gestures have to be bigger, ideas louder and bolder. After the long dinner interval, when the sun has set – well, nominally; on this occasion the deluge came and the temperature dropped – more usual theatrical conventions apply and focus becomes easier.

Extreme physicality was demanded of the singers, matched by mostly swift, vigorous playing from the orchestra. Some awkward first-night differences of tempo between pit and stage will settle. Grant Doyle played the Don as a dressed-down hedge-fund type, floppy hair and very crisp jeans with blazer – a terrible look but just the job here. He's more boyish than many a Don, a little overpowered by Leporello but vocally attractive and secure. All the women tottered noisily in high heels, rushing on, off, up, down as required. Both Elvira (Sophie Bevan) and Zerlina (Mary Bevan), sisters in life, displayed their contrasting talents, Sophie intense, touching, warmly dramatic, Mary feline, athletic, as yet lighter voiced but captivating.

Some of the action took place on a big bed. I had my first taste of duvet-envy as Zerlina and Masetto (the excellent Callum Thorpe) snuggled beneath theirs and the rest of us looked on, teeth chattering. But as we know from Dante, the final circle of hell is made of ice, not fire. In a slightly anticlimactic finale, Don Giovanni writhes on the floor, eventually consigned to the deep freeze of perpetual damnation. A few flames would've been nice.

Mimi's tiny hand is also frozen in La bohème, though the reasons are poverty not sin, and Cardiff's Millennium Centre has no discernible drafts. Annabel Arden's unshowy but radiant and affecting new production for Welsh National Opera, sensuously conducted by Carlo Rizzi with rhapsodic playing from the orchestra, updates the work by a few years. In Stephen Brimson Lewis's designs, lit by Tim Mitchell, this is a belle époque Paris Puccini might have known or Caillebotte might have painted. Film projections of swirling snow and the open-close of an enormous camera shutter between scenes add visual variety. Arden takes few liberties with the story yet tells it powerfully, which is the best you can ask.

The young bohemians are well cast, especially David Kempster's blusteringly engaging Marcello, with David Soar bidding a solemn and tender farewell to his overcoat (Vecchia zimarra) as Colline and Gary Griffiths nicely droll as the philosopher Schaunard. The Barcelona-born tenor Alex Vicens is uneven as Rodolfo, confined in the recitative passages but opening out with lyrical freedom in the big moments, starting with O soave fanciulla, which had at least one member of the audience – this one – reaching for her hanky.

The Romanian soprano Anita Hartig, making her UK debut, was direct and pure-voiced as Mimi, brilliantly offset by Kate Valentine's extravagant, luscious Musetta. The chorus excelled and, even without the benefits of Mark Elder's wise coaching for the Act II Cafe Momus scene – you know the one; you saw it on BBC2's appalling Maestro at the Opera – Rizzi held all together with loving detail and aplomb. I would give a special prize to the principal clarinet, Leslie Craven, whose voluptuous, ascending scales were things of joy.

In Oxfordshire, the sixth English Music festival coincided with the diamond jubilee weekend: 21 events in five days of bunting and flag-waving for an army of overlooked composers, many of whom were at the peak of their careers early in the Queen's reign. Taking place in and around Dorchester Abbey, the EMF has established itself with a publishing and recording arm, and this year a live relay – of the BBC Concert Orchestra's opening programme – on Radio 3. Yet it retains its engagingly non-streamlined feel. I have a soft spot for the hobbyist lobbyists who modestly tout, at the back of the abbey, for membership for societies appreciating the likes of Rutland Boughton, William Alwyn and Granville Bantock. In its 10-year history this burgeoning festival must have quadrupled their collective membership.

Last Monday the superb Jaguar Land Rover Band gave a rousing programme of brass band music by Vaughan Williams, Fletcher, Howells and others. A Dales Suite, "Embsay" by the Mancunian composer Arthur Butterworth (b.1923), a one-time trumpeter in the Royal Scottish National Orchestra and the Hallé now approaching 90, was a highlight. At the final concert the following night Delius's Seven Danish Songs (though we only heard six as the score for one went missing en route to Oxfordshire) were sung with generous ardour by Elena Xanthoudakis, deftly accompanied by the English String Orchestra.

They also performed a work by Prince Charles's favourite composer, Hubert Parry: his rarely heard Symphony No 3, "The English". Why so rare? Parry provides us with the answer, calling it variously "lightweight" and "quite a small and unimposing kind of symphony". I would not disagree except to say that it's quite large and rather long. But it was cheerfully and enthusiastically played, with a string of big tunes pouring out like a genially puffing locomotive. At the end, the tremendous young conductor, John Andrews, wiped his brow as if he'd just completed a first run through of Götterdämmerung. Prince Charles would have adored it. Alas he was elsewhere, enduring Grace Jones hula-hooping to Slave to the Rhythm at the time.


Fiona Maddocks

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
The Magic Flute; English music festival; Wigmore gala concert – review
Garsington's move to the Chilterns made for an enchanting Magic Flute, writes Fiona Maddocks

Fiona Maddocks

04, Jun, 2011 @11:05 PM

La Bohème – review

Annabel Arden captures the atmosphere of artistic Paris in an energetic staging of Puccini's opera, says Rian Evans

Rian Evans

03, Jun, 2012 @5:15 PM

Article image
Don Giovanni; Spinalba | Classical review
A fine cast rescues ENO's Halloween-ish new Don Giovanni, writes Stephen Pritchard

Stephen Pritchard

14, Nov, 2010 @12:05 AM

Article image
The Passenger; Don Giovanni; Faust – review
The past catches up with a former SS guard in ENO's exemplary staging of a neglected 1960s opera, writes Fiona Maddocks

Fiona Maddocks

24, Sep, 2011 @11:07 PM

Article image
Eugene Onegin; Iris; La Bohème; The Cunning Little Vixen – review
The summer opera season defies the downpours with some terrific Tchaikovsky, Shakespearean Puccini and more

Stephen Pritchard

19, Jun, 2016 @7:00 AM

Article image
Huddersfield contemporary music festival; Bath Mozartfest – review
An opera you feel through a pillow is par for the course in Huddersfield. Plus, an intimate Firebird for four hands in Bath

Fiona Maddocks

27, Nov, 2016 @7:30 AM

Article image
Don Giovanni – review

Rather than being the anarchic predator in whose vortex everyone is swept along, this Giovanni seems more of a secondary character, writes George Hall

George Hall

05, Jun, 2012 @5:01 PM

Article image
The Flying Dutchman; Colin Matthews study day; La bohème – review
Edward Gardner steers a perfect course as ENO's new Flying Dutchman moves from haunting dream to baffling nightmare, writes Fiona Maddocks

Fiona Maddocks

05, May, 2012 @11:06 PM

Article image
Don Giovanni - review

Director John Caird and designer John Napier may have had fun, but the comic element is less buffo than laughable, writes Rian Evans

Rian Evans

18, Sep, 2011 @4:36 PM

Article image
Don Giovanni; LSO/Pappano: Peter Maxwell Davies Symphony No 10 – review

Visual overload swamps Royal Opera's new Don Giovanni. And it's a top 10th from Peter Maxwell Davies, writes Fiona Maddocks

Fiona Maddocks

09, Feb, 2014 @12:06 AM