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When an opera begins with vivid scenes depicting murder, voyeurism, bisexuality and rape play, it is hard not to get engaged. It is a shame, then, that Richard Jones’s fresh take on Don Giovanni does not kick on from there.
This new version of the eighteenth century classic has all the ingredients for success. Jones has already directed an Olivier Award-winning opera but this is the first time he has taken on one of Mozart’s works for the English National Opera. He’s helped out here by conductor Mark Wigglesworth who did a grand job earlier this year on Wolfgang Amadeus classic, The Magic Flute.
The plot begins with the eponymous Spaniard being interrupted mid-coitus by his lover Donna Anna’s father. Seeing his daughter apparently being raped at knifepoint, the Commendatore attacks the Don and gets the pointy end of the weapon in his guts for his troubles.
Soon after, Giovanni’s roving eye settles on a virgin bride who is about to get married in his manor. Ignoring the well-worn wisdom of not defecating where you eat, he seduces her, much to the displeasure of her intended. A woman he married and abandoned in another town finds out the Don's location and, before you know it, the libido-on-legs is being hunted by his wife and her maid and Donna Anna and her fiancé as well as the disgruntled groom.
That this all sounds a little like a Benny Hill sketch has perhaps not slipped Jones's attention. He adds in a few more seventies touches like a landline telephone (a standard device in many a farce of that time) but, thankfully, no snatches of Yakety Sax. Unfortunately, like many of the farces that have been revived in recent years (for example, the execrable exercise that was Kenneth Branagh's The Painkiller), the scripted comedy is out of touch with modern sexual mores.
After all, we live in a era when a renowned philanderer stands an even chance of becoming the most powerful man in the world, and the only person standing in his way is a woman whose husband committed adultery while president. In lifestyle magazines and websites everywhere, every third article is about polyamory and no-strings-sex of all hues. London has no shortage of darkrooms and with the likes of Kinky Salon London and Torture Garden, sex parties are now an established part of the capital's cultural landscape. In other words, the various types of freeform sex are no longer the snigger-worthy topics they once were.
Aesthetically, there is nothing to write home about. Aside from a few neat flourishes, both the set design and costume design could not be simpler. The stage is largely filled with plain doors amid plainer walls presented across the view or side-on; if this is some kind of Freudian allusion to vaginas, it is a banal and bloodless one. From the Don down, most of the costumes are all-black which makes one wonder if even the lustiest of the characters are less concerned with le petit mort and more with actual mort.
This adapation, built on a translation by Amanda Holden, does little favour to the female characters. Even allowing for the chauvinistic attitudes of the time, the women here come across in general as shrill and powerless creatures who largely rely on men to seek out their vengeance. Given his creative approach to other parts of the plot concerning male characters, it is a shame Jones could not have done more with the female counterparts.
As part of a highly talented cast, Christopher Purves makes for a phenomenal Don Giovanni and, as his assistant Leporello, Clive Bayley is equally impressive. Together, they hold together a production which is too often static and frankly uninteresting. Putting an older man in the lead role instead of the usual whippersnapper gives the proceedings a new bent: no longer are we seeing a youngster whose good looks, prodigious penis and family wealth have given him all he could desire but a more mature misanthrope who has accumulated over a thousand notches in his belt from all over Europe and, even at this stage of his life, cares little for those he comes across.
Jones has some inventive ideas but not enough. As well as the commendable casting of Purves, the finale is something to be savoured and one which will divide the audience members still awake at the end of the near-three hour running time. In the standard ending, an unrepentant Don Giovanni is dragged down to hell by the Commendatore; in this instance the Don swaps places at the last minute with Leporello, disguises himself as the unfortunate man (who disappears into the fiery world below) and then continues afresh with a new assistant. It’s a brave move which shows just how creative Jones could have been with the remainder of this missed opportunity.
Don Giovanni continues at the English National Opera until 26 October. Information on ticket prices, dates and timings can be found on the official ENO website. Londonist attended on a complimentary press ticket.
All images: Robert Workman
Last Updated 09 December 2016