I first saw Don Giovanni in the 1960s directed by Franco Zeffirelli, conducted by George Solti with a gloriously alluring production. The tragi-comic (as the ROH notes describe it) tells the story of the seductive Don Juan, whose insatiable appetites lead him to murder and eventually a well-deserved and terrifying death. Which sounds very like a tragedy and not at all like a comedy. In that past production a brilliant balance was managed between the fun which the Don’s servant, Leporello represents, and the darkness which the avenging Donna Anna, daughter of his victim, is determined to bring to her abuser.

All those decades ago, the staging was naturalistic so that one felt the heat and soft seductive airs of a Spanish summer, in contrast to the ice-cold dread of the Mausoleum and statue of the Commendatore who will send Giovanni to hell. Zerlina and her peasant friends were celebrating in a place of flowery garlands, light and laughter while Donna Anna and the less convinced, avenger, Donna Elvira usually appeared out of shadow or moonlight.

This present production, revived from 2014, presents itself in a very different and much more modern way. The set, essentially one building with additions, rooms, courtyards, stairs and many, many doors, is as basic as an architectural drawing. But it comes alive with projected overlay so that it mirrors the progress of the story. During the overture, names of the thousands of women seduced by Don Giovanni, cover the walls. Sometimes it is swept by inky blackness, sometimes by flames, sometimes by the eroticism of deep pink roses. Occasionally, it almost looks ordinary.

But most of all, it serves as a back-drop for the Don who appears in unexpected places and disappears as easily. Leporello and all the others to a lesser extent, play the same trick so that the eye of the audience can never be quite sure where to look. This is a brilliant way of showing Don Giovanni’s all-pervasive, all-persuasive allure. No-one is safe from him, not even his servant.

In Mariusz Kwiecien the ROH has found the perfect Don Giovanni. He sings beautifully, even if Mozart does give the most famous arias to the ladies. His duet with Zerlina (Chen Reiss), La ci darem la mano as he successfully seduces her from her fiancé, Masetto, is sung with irresistible delicacy and passion. His aria, when he woos Donna Elvira but in the voice of Leporello, makes it clear that he has no concept of truth and understands only the reality of seduction and survival.

Leporello (Ildebrando D’Arcangelo) bears the weight of the comedy bravely but, as always it is Donna Anna (Rachel Willis-Serensen), Donna Elvira (Hrachuhi) and Don Ottavio (Pavol Breslik) who wear the musical laurels. Although it is made clear that Elvira’s desire for vengeance is less than skin deep and even Anna is not immune to the Don’s charms, they form such a formidable team that, well before the end, Giovanni seems almost pitiable when faced with them. Perhaps there is comedy in this, although, I remain unconvinced. For me, the opera will always be an emotional telling of the most iconic of human tragedies: a brilliantly gifted human being who uses his talents to destroy, primarily others, but ultimately himself.

The ROH orchestra under the baton of Marc Minkowski is called upon to use its own powers of seduction and dramatic intensity to bring forth all that is most exciting in Mozart’s music. The plaeyrs do not fail. In particular they reflect the constant shifts in the wily Don Giovanni’s manner and style contrasting with the unchanging sweetness of his, in a sense, rival, Don Ottavio. Musically, both good and evil are given equal charms. The orchestra itself must duck and dive with the opera’s characters and this they do with verve and brilliance.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Director: Kasper Holten
Conductor: Marc Minkowski