Glyndebourne's Don Giovanni, the war of the critics - Opera of the Week

"Sometimes the Devil is a gentleman"

I can't recall when an opera excited such polarisation amongst knowledgeable reviewers - I guess it must be worth watching. So the Opera Of The Week is Jonathan Kent's controversial production for Glyndebourne, filmed in 2010 and streaming from their YouTube feed from noon Monday June 1st (our time) until the wee small hours on June 8th. Programme and details of the performance here. (As I write, the feed is still showing their absolutely delightful Marriage of Figaro. It seems to be Mozart Month in Sussex!) Have a look at their glorious website, and pine for the English countryside!

The urbane Gerald Finley (baritone) is the eponymous Don ("a young, extremely licentious nobleman" according to the libretto). I haven't seen the performance yet, so I'll be fascinated to see how he portrays it. Glyndebourne is using the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment under Vladimir Jurowski - a change from playing Mozart with a full modern symphony orchestra. Get background on the opera, its roles, history and synopsis from Wikipedia.

On to the Controversy

"Classical Iconoclast" on Blogspot can't say enough for the production - "demonic energy from the lighter timbres of period instruments", "Gerald Finley's Don Giovanni is smooth, even a little soft-grained to start with, but then he's playing a man who achieves his aims by charm". There's an interesting comment at the end on the difference between the live performance and the BBC film version, which we'll watch. Food for discussion here - a stage is patently make-believe, a film pretends to be of the real world, so does a film of a stage performance fall between two stools, or get the best of both?

Zerlina 'shaving' Leporello - a new cut?

"Super-conductor" on Blogspot is also highly favourable, commenting on how well the excellent singers define the characters and bring out the meanings behind the story. Zerlina apparently is portrayed as sado-masochistic, which the reviewer finds entirely fitting for her and Leporello. And other innovations like setting fire to the Don's house to put an end to the Act I ball. We'll see!

The Daily Express is more critical. It raises the issue of the set:

Kent and his designer Paul Brown had opted for a monochrome look redolent of the films of Antonioni, and the grey cube which dominated the stage – constantly rotating and opening like a box of tricks – imparted a pleasing sense of mystery. But their ‘graveyard’ was a cumbersome hydraulic contraption, and their solution for the climactic appearance of the Commendatore – who materialised from under the Don’s table like a half-decomposed corpse – evoked disgust rather than the requisite shock and awe.

This set - apparently a big cube with opening sides - created mixed attitudes. MusicalCriticism didn't like it at all:

So how and why does the production fail to stack up as an integrated, well conceived Don Giovanni?  My first criticism is that it is simply too monumental, the central (and brilliantly ingenious) cube somehow sapping energy from the performers onstage, actually slowing things up rather than facilitating the seamless transition from scene to scene.... even as we admire the ingenuity and the stagecraft of it all, we lose dramatic momentum.... It all just feels too heavy, too contrived.

Many have said much the same for "The Machine" in LePage's Ring Cycle at the New York Met.

TheArtsDesk, who said damningly "this Don Giovanni wasn’t bad, it just wasn’t brilliant, and you rather hope for brilliant at Glyndebourne", commented of the set:

a sort of Rubik's Cube of a building designed by Paul Brown that opened in ever more ingenious ways, and morphed from chapel to party house to graveyard – was clever and satisfying and mirrored the steady disintegration of the characters as we progressed. But without the intensity and the drama from these characters, it was rather wasted.

They didn't like Finley's gentlemanly portrayal either:

...we all know that Don Giovanni has his arrogant bounder side, but there has to be a bit more swagger, a bit more sex, a bit more inherent loutishness there too....Finley’s rather preppy look suggested he’d be happier picking up freshers at Oxford....There’s a natural lightness to Finley’s voice that can be very attractive, but it didn’t do it for me last night – there just wasn’t the gravel there to grip as it might have done.

Peter Schofield didn't like it at all!

Lyn found many other reviews - for and against - that you might like to read.

Guardian ("Kent created a nullity"); Gramophone ("a gripping account ... Kent rarely puts a foot wrong"); Independent ("Hydraulics apart, a brilliant evening."); and OperaToday (" the amazing production of Don Giovanni at Glundebourne, a work of art in itself....This amazing set frees the action from technical limitations. allowing the drama to unfold, rapid-fire and free.")

I found it interesting to read all these reviews before seeing the performance. They gave me a lot to think about and to look out for, and to help me form my own views on their disagreements. Can't wait, and can't wait to read your opinions on our egroup afterwards.

Tom, 29 May 2020.


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