There is hell-fire enough at the close of Francesca Zambello’s 2002 staging of Don Giovanni to consume not just the Don but the entire production. Not such a bad idea, I found myself thinking, as the Commendatore’s gigantic gauntlet descended, its accusing finger aflame. There’s nothing quite like a burst of pyrotechnics to gee up an audience at the end of a long and laboured evening but to have started a run of Mozart/ Da Ponte revivals with the feeblest of the Royal Opera’s three current productions only served to remind me that a replacement is in urgent need.
It is, for one thing, an ugly way to remember that gifted designer Maria Bjornson. The semi-scorched wall that dominates her distressed exteriors, black and latticed and encrusted with crucifixes and candles and an elaborate effigy of the Madonna – symbol of feminine purity – looking down on the unseemly proceedings in anticipation of the next round of hell-fire is Zambello’s only statement. It affords the Don his moment of heretical contempt and Don Ottavio his moment of empathy as Donna Anna plays increasingly hard to get.
There was real hope in the Overture that the conductor Constantinos Carydis with his buzzy cut-to-the-bone awareness of period manners was going to move things along. The blistering pace of the main allegro raised expectations that the reckless dash of the narrative would find complicity in the pit. So many women, so little time. But it was not to be. Carydis nursed and indulged his singers and himself with some curious disparities of tempi.
Casting brought distinctive vocal colours but only patchy accomplishment. The women were striking but variable with Katarina Karneus, sporting a seemingly new-found soprano brilliance to her stylish mezzo, was an accomplished Donna Elvira, not so much waiting for her close-up as her mad scene, musket at the ready to exact vengeance. Hibla Gerzmava endowed Donna Anna with more fire than beauty and rather snatched at the fireworks in “Non mi dir”. Irini Kyriakidou was a womanly and mature sounding Zerlina – one missed the fresher-voiced contrast.
Of the men, it’s not often that that dullard Don Ottavio is a scene-stealer but Matthew Polenzani most certainly was marrying tenorial meatiness to great refinement in both his arias. Gerald Finley and Lorenzo Regazzo – Don Giovanni and Leporello – did the business but the business, especially the comedy, felt over-egged, even desperate at times.
And surely our last glimpse of the Don in Hell should find him not with a naked woman but rather another Leporello?