Florentina Harris heads to the London Coliseum to review the ENO’s interpretation of Mozart’s Don Giovanni
The English National Opera’s Don Giovanni is a very unique interpretation of Mozart’s work. It is so unique, in fact, that they have even changed the ending. The comedy, set in the house of a Commendatore, is based around the antics of a chauvinistic figure, Don Giovanni (DG), who continually rapes and seduces women. Having had a sexual fling with Donna Anna, DG exchanges blows with her father, the Commendatore, until he kills him. The story is then centred around Donna Anna and her husband Don Ottavio, getting revenge on DG, while Donna Elvira becomes smitten with the sexual predator. DG’s servant and confidant, Leporello, tells Elvira that Don Giovanni is not worth it. He is unfaithful to everyone and his conquests include thousands of women from all over Europe; the man has certainly got around! Aside from the main plot, the naïve servant, Zerlina, is also seduced by DG on her wedding night to Masetto, a peasant.
The opera has been revived to be in a contemporary and timeless setting. When the curtain opens, a line of women, of varying ages, shapes and sizes, pass DG one at a time, and go into what seem like a sex dungeon, one after another. Throughout the production every woman is dressed in black to symbolise that they are considered the same by DG. Later we see the young Zerlina in white as a symbol of her virginity. The costumes play an important role in the visual storytelling. The set is very sparse, which emphasises the prime pieces of furniture such as the bed, the telephone (a modern artefact that Donna Anna uses to communicate with her husband), the bookcase (where DG’s diary is kept with notes of each woman he has had a short-lived relation with) and then the statue of the dead Commendatore, which comes to life and scares DG at the end.
For me, DG (Christopher Purves) and his servant Leporello (Clive Bayley) steal the show. Purves plays the role in a charming manner, dispelling any suspicions that the character is up to no good, which contrasts other renditions of the opera in which DG is interpreted as rather gruff and violent. The role of the servant is one of light relief, in contrast to the themes of violence and rape that are apparent in the opera. Bayley has a natural ability to connect with the audience and the way in which he says his lines really emphasises the character’s stupidity. One interesting aspect of this performance is that DG and Leporello are contrasted by their hair. DG is completely bald while Leporello wears a thick, ginger wig. At different moments of the opera, this facilitates them to swap identities as DG only has to snatch the wig off Leporello. The way they communicate together on stage amplifies the comic element of the production.
The opera is translated into English, which at certain moments poses a problem. For example in Zerlina’s aria: Batti, batti, bel Massetto, rather than saying ‘si, si, si, si, si, si’, she says ‘yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes’, which is extremely unnatural. However some of the lines have been adapted for a modern audience and I would say the translation actually corresponds well to the setting of a contemporary society, in which English is the universal language.
The ending is the most compelling part of the production. The statue of the Commendatore comes to life and scares the life out of DG, threatening to take him to the land of the dead. DG, however, cunningly steals the wig of Leporello, and so poor Leporello goes to hell while DG lives on, with Leporello’s identity. The ginger hair now represents the identity of DG as a sexual predator, which is a common, old-fashioned notion associated with men with ginger hair.
The production of Don Giovanni is great; a mix of humour and suspense throughout. Tickets are still available for 18th, 21th, 24th and 26th October.
Featured Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons