don tup

Gavan Ring as Don Giovanni and David Stout as Leporello. Pictures: Richard Hubert Smith

Don Giovanni

Welsh National Opera

Birmingham Hippodrome


This staging, originally by John Caird, one of the most experienced directors of both theatre and opera, was very much in the traditional vein. There were no, or virtually no, surprises. It’s a production one might have encountered in, say, the 1970s or perhaps ’80s. Staied, sound, utterly reliable.

Did it feel flat, or even dull, in a sense, with the director taking such a back seat? Well yes, fractionally. The one big idea, from the equally eminent designer John Napier, was to use imagery taken from the sculptor Alberto Giacometti.

Not so much the thin, emaciated figures for which he is best known, as a large frieze, rather 16th or 17th century in appearance, which Napier turned into a massive backdrop, like heavily embossed oak panelling. Occasionally it shifted around. But although it lent undoubted magnificence, at no point did one feel that it contributed much to the impact, even though perhaps aptly domineering.

Yet this Don Giovanni was a lot of fun, and that we most likely owe in part to the revival director, Caroline Chaney, who prevented any sagging (including with the small chorus), and to a well-chosen cast who without exception maintained terrific pace, well defined characters and a quality of singing in the arias and perky recitatives galore that brought the production zest and put fire in its belly.

don mid

 Gareth Brynmor John as Masetto and Katie Bray as Zerlina 

David Stout’s endlessly amusing Leporello was perhaps the first indicator of the quality that placed this plainish staging on a high level. The moves were all, well, stolid; but Stout’s skill at mischievous invention, his delicious sense of irony, his fusion of the deferential and cautiously impudent or insolent, his sly and flamboyant saunterings, his wealth of gesture or facial gesture, were as entertaining as a stand-up comic (‘I’ll quietly swallow this bit of pheasant’).

Yet it was all relevant. He never stole a scene; but he certainly made the most of his own. The voice is a rich fusion, broadly bass baritone but easily capable of rising above or burrowing below that. And his diction was perfect, something so crucial for Leporello.

But so must the slick diction of the count be, and Irishman Gavan Ring’s Don Giovanni, elegant even when decked out in vast white cloak (which of course he later swaps with Leporello), provided the perfect foil for his servant, or vice versa. Vocally he seemed to fit the part perfectly, so much so that ‘Deh! Vieni alla finestra’ was as attractively sung (‘honeyed’, it says) as one could want.

Long coats can be restricting, and perhaps his moves were a little less fluent and impish than they might have been. Yet there seemed no diminution of the humour. The plotting and scheming, the salacious marauding (the pursuit of Zerlina, for instance), all made their reckless mark. (‘I need them more than the bread I eat, or the air I breathe… To be faithful to one would be cruel to the others.’ Simon Rees’ expert surtitles preserved much of the fun.) Not just together, but singly, these two main characters made a terrific impact.  

Zerlina and Masetto both, in fact, came across vividly. He, a bit of a thug (‘Batti, batti’), but in fact rightly affronted, was turned into an unusually forceful character by Gareth Brynmor John. True, the production never got round the rather corny business of individuals facing each other with knives or swords and endlessly circling but never striking. But in a way, that fitted the staging’s old-hat approach. If Masetto emerged, quite aptly, as one of Giovanni’s strongest, most dominant pursuers, Katie Bray made of Zerlina a wonderful mix of the naïve and gullible with the irate and disgusted. Thus Zerlina becomes a significant part of the Don’s pursuers. She was a delight.

don mis2

Elizabeth Watts as Donna Elvira

Donna Elvira comes into her own precisely at the moment she protects Zerlina. Elizabeth Watts, a wonderful singer at any time, shone not only in the solos, especially the famous last one, but in the ensembles, all of which were excellent. Thus, we were treated not just to a magnificent septet at the end of Act I, but a notable wry quartet in which Giovanni joins three of his pursuers. Being smallish in stature (as was, peculiarly, the white marble statue of Miklós Sebestyén’s Commendatore), Watts brings added vulnerability, and is able to play on this. Just a fraction muted at times, she stands alone in believing Giovanni is genuinely in love with her, the others mere flutters. And here, we believe her; this is an Elvira more innocent than most, pure in spirit, touching in her trust.  

But the pair who impressed one most unexpectedly were Donna Anna and Don Ottavio. It would seem the audience shared that view. Benjamin Hulett has made his way up the ladder from promising newcomer with an exquisite tone and beautiful delivery to a first choice for many of the main British companies (Garsington’s Tamino this summer, for instance).

Don Ottavio’s contributions can seem a bit of a tag-along. Not here. They emerged as some of the most beautifully polished, nobly presented items in the whole opera, vital where necessary, exquisitely sostenuto elsewhere; the woodwind for his ‘Go and comfort my beloved’ was one of numerous enriching orchestral touches under James Southall’s leadership.

Just on this one evening, the sometimes rather harsh Donna Anna was taken over (from Emily Birsan) by Meeta Ravel. And what a treat she proved. One of two former head choristers in the cast (Wells Cathedral girls; David Stout was Westminster Abbey’s), she, like Hulett, produced gold every time she sang. Her coloratura (Donna Anna has a fair bit) was commanding; her tone is richly coloured, lending the orphaned Anna a deal more personality than she sometimes has. Here, one felt, was a voice that is finely formed, a voice of not just assurance but palpable character. To her and Hulett’s convincing Don Ottavio went the palm.

Roderic Dunnett


Index page Hippodrome Reviews A-Z Reviews by Theatre