Most critics have scorned the Royal Opera House’s Kasper Holten production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni. “Gloomy”. The scrawling of the names of the Don’s thousands of lovers on the set – a visual of Leporello’s famous book – is “distracting”. 

The ghosts who walk the set and stalk the anti-hero are “surplus to requirements”. Moan, moan, moan. They’ve been banging on since the show first saw the light of day in 2014. 

I love it. It’s exciting. The production shimmers with projected script and jostling lines, framing the action. Literally. Lighting Director, Bruno Poet, mirrors the shifting moods of the singers with his whizz-bang projectors and bags of backlit tricks. The audience are kept on the edge of their seats. Whatever we think we observe, we are proved wrong. Welcome to Poet’s world of quantum opera. 

If Schrodinger had been an opera producer his Don Giovanni would have been good and bad at the same time.

Holten creates a sense of moral turmoil. The tight boundaries of the set and proximity of the characters in frenetic action illuminate the contradictory characters of the principals. This Mozart/Da Ponte version of the ubiquitous Don Juan story, more than any recent production on the circuit, deserves nothing less. 

That trick of contradiction is pulled off better than in any production I can recall – in half a century of lapping up my favourite opera whenever the opportunity presents. I must have clocked up 75 Don Giovannis, nearly as many as the villain had lovers in Turkey (91).

Settings, schmettings. For Don Giovanni over the centuries no holds have been barred, in interpretations ranging from traditional Baroque through comical to frankly squalid. Public toilet, Scottish Opera; the Don as a member of the La Scala audience in Milan; pissed in a Dublin pub courtesy or Roddy Doyle. Drag, punk, mafia. Liberties have always been taken by producers with the 17th century seducer-libertine of Seville. 

There is the conventional approach. In a world where tired repetition of this pack-em-in box office favourite played in safe mode is the easy way out, the nuances of the plot are often smothered by crinoline rustling, candelabras, and over-easy characterisation. Don Giovanni – “Don’tcha hate him”. Donna Anna – outraged. Donna Elvira – spurned. 

Snag is, none of those portrayals is true. The characters are much more complex than familiar, hackneyed representations imply. 

I shall take the plot as read. For those unfamiliar with it, or needing a refresher, look here. The good news is this Holten interpretation, in the hands of the brilliant revival director, Greg Aldridge, delivers the necessary complexity through every detailed stage direction and gesture.

How often have you seen the murdered Commendatore as an avenging equestrian, who gets off his plinth to come to dinner, wrestling the Don to fiery Hades? Then, admire the happy survivors gathering for one last “I told you so” ensemble, as the contemporary operatic tradition of 1787 Prague required. The censoring authorities always liked establishment goodies to win.

Mozart added a final didactic chorus with the words, “evildoers will meet their just ends.” This vocal ensemble brings back God-based morality and undermines the unique aesthetics that Giovanni epitomizes in his last stand. The audience heads home with the warm feeling, good has triumphed. The censors are happy. The regime has not been undermined. 

Not so at Covent Garden. Don Giovanni goes to hell, tout court. Lights out. Make your own decisions about the morality of it all. Missing out the final ensemble is not uncommon. I happen to like the piece, as the declamatory music is compelling. But the dramatic impact of the lights going out on a Don Giovanni sinking from the world was huge. 

The action is played out on a rotating set, accommodating necessary rooms, balconies, streets, and ballrooms, accessed by a labyrinth of staircases and rear doors. The distressed neutral colour is probably the agent provocateur for all “gloomy” judgements on the production.

But the whole is constantly enlivened by Poet’s stunning light show. As the curtain rises the names of all the Don’s past conquests are written in script across the frontage, mostly legible. Odile had a hard time of it. She gets three mentions.

Lighting is central, framing doorways, windows, often in illusional 3D action. The apex of Poet’s trickery comes in Act II, when Don Giovanni stands elevated, mid set in an open doorway which bends and shimmers like a Dr Who title sequence, his internal turmoil churning as he vigorously delivers the case for the defence.

The set is based on a 1953 lithograph by Maurits Cornelis Escher, Relativity. It is easy to understand why that was Holten’s choice. Everyone in Don Giovanni is jostling for position, as in the lithograph. Ghosts stalk corridors as reminders of deeds past and inescapable. The grey, shadowy figures haunted the Covent Garden stage, too. Faceless. Was one Odile, perhaps?

Then, there is pin sharp direction. Every look and gesture are imbued with meaning. And we are treated to occasional, innovative, sleight of hand interpretation. The scene in Act II when Don Giovanni attempts to seduce Zerlina, enticing her to a secluded chamber, is turbocharged by playing the action in full view. 

Turns out Zerlina is in cahoots with Donna Anna and Donna Elvira, rips her bodice, and to the Don’s surprise he finds himself, for once, a victim of entrapment. Didn’t see that coming.

There are no heroes or heroines in this opera. It is horribly politically incorrect. Donna Anna is prepared to countenance forgiving the man who has murdered her father, the Commendatore, in cold blood. Her pale mauve dress is stained black, a not-so-subtle allusion to her flawed character. 

Donna Elvira, usually directed as an avenging, spurned hound of hell, driven on to a doomed vengeance crusade by her cuckold lover Don Ottavio, was performed by Irish mezzo-soprano, Paula Murphy. One moment, condemning the Don for abandonment, the next giving him one last chance, while the hapless Don Ottavio looks on. Murphy was dazzling. 

Charles Castronovo, an American tenor, sang Don Ottavio and rendered Dalla sua pace, Ottavio’s high water mark aria, with perfect pace, elegance and, in the recapitulation, a tear-jerking slowing tempo.

The Zerlina and Masetto pairing (Austrian mezzo-soprano, Christina Gansch and British bass, Thomas Faulkner) worked particularly well. Zerlina was played as shameless, star struck by her courting Count. Masetto seemed philosophical. The only character who truly understood the social pecking order of his world.

What more can be said of British baritone, Christopher Maltman – Leporello? He occupies the opera stage and the lieder concert platform with equal ease. Kitted out in a bookie’s runner bowler, the long-suffering manservant was particularly brilliant in the Act II scene, disguised as his master, detaining Donna Elvira, while the Don dodges off. 

Maria Bengtsson, a Swedish soprano, delivered a statuesque Donna Anna. Morphing from high dignity to a quivering jelly at the thought of Don Giovanni, her laser-sharp delivery commanded total attention. Hear her recording of Strauss’ Four Last Songs. You will get my drift.

Don Giovanni (Italian baritone Luca Micheletti) was portrayed as totally consumed in his quest for “libertar”. Micheletti is an actor and Thespian skills suffused his portrayal. Small ticks, such as the comic mimicking of Leporello when he is disguised as the Count, added to excellent vocals.

It’s too bad Micheletti had few “big” singing moments. Mozart short-changed his anti-hero. Là ci darem la mano in Act I and that’s about it. 

Constantin Trinks, a German conductor, kept the ROH orchestra on its nimble toes. He is building an impressive CV as a guest conductor across Europe, including appearances at Bayreuth. 

The opening night of the run was cancelled out of respect for her late Majesty, Elizabeth II, who had forged close connections with Covent Garden during her reign. The ER II on the velvet curtains had been replaced with respectful black silk. Oliver Mears, the ROH Director, led a minute’s silence and we all sang God Save the King.

Emotions were already at fever pitch when the orchestra struck up. For the next three and a half hours they were taken sky high as Holten, Trinks, and a top-notch cast added yet fresh twists to the familiar Don Giovanni tale.

And another thing!

I met Sting. Two weeks ago. As one does. Well, not really “met”. I butted in.

It’s 7:00 am at The Four Seasons 60th floor Jeans-George Skyhigh restaurant in Philadelphia’s Comcast Building. Terrific view from the all-glass, mirrored palace. Horizon to horizon views. I am the sole breakfaster. In comes Sting. No entourage. Now two tables are occupied.  

I ask you, what is any self-respecting Reaction hack who admires his 2006 Songs from the Labyrinth album of John Dowland songs expected to do? Butt in. That’s what.

Slurping courage from my coconut and peanut smoothie I walked across and introduced myself. At best Sting might punch me, at worst, we would have a conversation.

After a shrug of resignation on his part we had a conversation.

I am addicted to Labyrinth because Sting takes the 16th century Dowland to a sound world very different from the familiar classical interpretations with which we are familiar. Beautifully crafted they may be, but they lack the earthiness Sting injects into what is, essentially, folk music. His whole career has been about innovation and artistic curiosity. 

Newsflash! Sting has been asked to consider recording a successor album, of Benjamin Britten songs. What do I think? I point out that Britten wrote mostly for his partner, Peter Pears, and the style may not suit Sting’s voice.

What else should he be looking at? We have a conversation about Ralph Vaughan Williams, the uber-collector of English tavern songs and village folk music.

He cocks an ear. I get the impression I am chatting with an artist still very much on a mission. Not yet tramping the well-worn, goldie-oldie circuit.

So, when Sting’s ground-breaking album, Last Songs from the Four Seasons Skyhigh, hits the airwaves, I expect a credit. I shall certainly review it here.

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