Straying too far from the classical

26 February 2008

Don Giovanni, West Road Concert Hall, 20-23rd February, 19:45

3 Stars

Reviewer James Savage-Hanford

Cambridge University Opera Society’s modern take on Mozart’s Don Giovanni is a startlingly contemporary and thought-provoking undertaking. Director James Hurley aims to set the classic opera in what he calls a “broken” world, readjusting the spotlight to reveal the sordid reality of what lies beneath the surface of the heady world of celebrity. The character of Don Giovanni – whom Ashley Riches embodies with an appropriate degree of self-assured and masterly arrogance – finds himself constantly hounded by paparazzi, alongside the ever-growing troupe of those he has wronged through seduction, abuse, and murder.

The dynamic between Don Giovanni and his servant Leporello (Edward de Minckwitz) is played out in an often delectably comic manner, helped along by the colloquialism of the English translation. Indeed, there is a greater prevalence for comedy over tragedy, most evidently so in the scene at the start of Act 2 in which Leporello – pretending to be the Don – attempts to woo Donna Elvira over MSN Messenger, the dialogue projected from the hanging TV screens that form the backdrop to the stage.

There are moments when attempts at innovation fail, however. One example is the Don’s ‘masked ball’ at the end of the first Act, which is transformed to host a group of drunken football fans playing twister, and singing and dancing with glowsticks. Lacking in any sort of uniform choreography, it also runs a high risk of falling apart musically (despite the conductor himself using a pair of glowsticks), not least because there are also two offstage ensembles playing at the same time. In general, however, the orchestral playing is of a high order (despite that occasionally flat Horn), and in terms of singing, particular mention must go to sopranos Ruth Jenkins (Anna) and Katy Watson (Elvira).

Perhaps the underlying problem with this modern reading lies in our traditional perception of Don Giovanni. One who never fails to entice us, he becomes our world; indeed, we miss his presence when he is not onstage. Part of his appeal also lies with the fact that the Don is fully responsible for his own downfall, rather than having it mediated externally. It seems undeniable that this modern reinterpretation does in part subscribe to that dictum of ‘the media made you, so it can break you’, which certainly forces us to renegotiate our traditionally-perceived view of Don Giovanni.

If you haven’t seen an opera before then certainly Don Giovanni is a great one to start with. But then there’s the risk that after seeing this one, you may want to go and see it again in a more classic rendering.