“He commands light and shade” wrote Ferruccio Busoni of Mozart “but his light never blinds, and his darkness still shows clear outlines”. Judging from his new Welsh National Opera production of Don Giovanni, no-one mentioned this to director John Caird.
The first impression is of deep Gothic darkness, at the centre of which looms the monolithic presence and twisted human forms of Rodin’s Gates of Hell. Bronze-robed monks line the stage, the overture’s D minor introduction wails balefully – and Caird’s pointless bit of on-stage business for Leporello looks even more redundant.
It doesn’t get much brighter. In many ways this is a traditional production – the costumes deliver all the richly-coloured period silks and velvets you could wish for, and the opera’s denouement is played blood-curdlingly straight. But there’s a conceptual problem here. Don Giovanni – especially in David Kempster’s swaggering, malign performance – is presented throughout as already halfway to hell. Without the possibility of redemption, the drama becomes as uniformly dark as the lighting.
But on its own terms, it works – especially with as strong a cast of company regulars as WNO had assembled here. Vocally, Leporello (David Soar) almost upstaged his master, and Nuccia Focile’s nuanced, genuinely affecting Donna Elvira stood out amongst Camilla Roberts’ robust Donna Anna and Claire Ormshaw’s winningly guileless Zerlina. As Don Ottavio, Robin Tritschler made Dalla sua pace sound like Puccini; a ravishing moment, and of a piece with the almost Wagnerian colours of the WNO Orchestra in one of Lothar Koenigs’ most powerful readings to date.
Rating * * * *