REVIEW: Don Giovanni, Longborough Festival Opera

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Ivan Ludlow as Don Giovanni and Paula Sides as Donna Anna. Photo: Matthew Williams-Ellis

THERE’S always a risk for opera and theatre directors who ‘update’ famous works that were written centuries ago with the aim of making them more accessible, or relevant, to present-day audiences.

For a start, it entails putting the characters in modern dress – in this case that of the 21st century – and placing them in a setting that is familiar to the people of that age.

Longborough Festival Opera’s 2019 production of Don Giovanni by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) satisfied these criteria on several fronts (though whether it satisfied traditionalists is a different matter). It was also sung in an English translation by the librettist Amanda Holden from Lorenzo da Ponte’s original Italian. (This might have further irritated purists!)

Set in a health spa or gymnasium, complete with a male urinal, it proliferated with bare-chested men in shorts parading on stage and doing various physical exercises, while one of them (guess who!), grabbed every woman who passed by with the intention of having his evil way with her. Fortunately, from the point of view of the villainous Don, there was a sufficient supply of attractive females floating around in this alpha male establishment to help him fulfil his lustful ambitions.

Presumably the idea of director Martin Constantine was to place the story in this most laddish of locations to drive home as comprehensively as possible the despicability of the Don’s behaviour to an audience attuned to sexual equality in an era reverberating from the aftershocks of the #MeToo movement.

But whatever ideas and innovations inspire directors the music remains, and when it’s Mozart and it’s done by Longborough at full tilt – with conductor Thomas Blunt at the helm – the result is pure joy.

The singing for this production, which consisted of six performances between 11th and 20th July, was of the highest order. Baritone Ivan Ludlow played the part of Don Giovanni to appropriate macho and amoral effect and bass-baritone Emyr Wyn Jones fitted neatly into the role of the Don’s long-suffering manservant Leporello.

Given that Leporello’s famous ‘catalogue’ aria – in which he lists the Don’s vast number of sexual conquests – is so familiar in Italian (itself the most musical of languages) it was interesting to hear what it would sound like in English. The result was not as prosaic as might have been feared. Amanda Holden is a skilful translator of words set to music and the comic quality of the aria and its vivid eloquence remained intact.

Equally brilliant were the American soprano Paula Sides as Donna Anna and New Zealand-born Claire Egan as Donna Elvira. Ms Egan’s soaring soprano was a special delight and wonderfully geared to the music of Mozart. It was heartening that she had returned to Longborough in a leading role after standing in – as a result of a diary mix-up – for two performances as Violetta in last year’s production of Verdi’s La Traviata. (She had been the understudy – or ‘cover’ as it is known in opera – for the part.)

Another delight was the singing of Welsh soprano Llio Evans as the flirtatious (and about to be married!) servant girl Zerlina who becomes the focus of Don Giovanni’s lascivious intentions, much to the chagrin of her bridegroom-to-be Masetto, played with requisite jealous rage by baritone Matthew Durkan.

Meanwhile, fresh from his exertions as Enrico (Henry VIII) in Donizetti’s Anna Bolena at Longborough, the Polish bass Lukas Jakobski emerged as the Commendatore, the statue that comes to life and consigns Don Giovanni to the fires of Hell – recognised by most audiences as just punishment for a rapist and murderer! At six feet seven inches in height, and with a deep, deep voice, he was well-fitted to the role of Don Giovanni’s executioner.

The Longborough season concludes with Francesco Cavalli’s La Calisto on Monday, 29th July, Wednesday, 31st July, Friday, 2nd August and Saturday, 3rd August.