The Welsh National Opera are back at the Bristol Hippodrome for their Spring Season of Rabble Rousers, presenting three different operas over four nights that aim to highlight opera’s ability to be noisy, rebellious and unquestionably disreputable. This sounded good to me; being honest, I feel it’s important to point out that I was attending Don Giovanni in the spirit of giving the genre one last chance. The last opera I saw from this company was ‘From the House of the Dead’ which was set in a claustrophobic Siberian prison, and I’m afraid to say I didn’t enjoy it at all. What I remember was that it was dark, miserable and gloomy. Perhaps proper opera aficionados enjoyed it, but I am a bit more of a novice and it was enough to put me off opera forever. However, I was reminded that I have enjoyed other operas albeit that I always felt like a bit of an imposter in the crowd, and a rebellious, rabble rousing season sounded like something I might enjoy more so I came with an open mind.
Based on the legendary fictional character Don Juan, Don Giovanni is a charismatic yet arrogant serial seducer working his way round Europe, ravishing women and taking what he wants with no regard for their feelings whatsoever. Despite his incredible amount of notches on the bedpost (his servant Leporello estimates his conquests at around the 2000 mark), the audience is not encouraged to celebrate or marvel at his prowess. Don Giovanni is a sociopath, resorting to rape when his powers of seduction don’t work. When he breaks into the chamber of Donna Anna to take what he wants by force, the encounter ends in Don Giovanni murdering her father the Commendatore. Going on the run and pursued by Donna Elvira who believes Giovanni to be her husband, he cannot help himself from attempting to seduce Zerlina at her wedding day celebrations and further complicating things for himself and Leporello. As with all good villains, Don Giovanni eventually gets his comeuppance in spectacular fashion, being dragged off to hell by demons after refusing to repent for his sins and lack of morality.
So, did this production of Don Giovanni ignite any passion for the opera and turn me back to the cultured side? OK, I’ll admit; Don Giovanni totally seduced me! During the interval I overheard another operagoer telling his companion that he liked the production but that he was just not a fan of Mozart’s opera scores. Now, I’m not sure I would be able to tell my Mozart from my Puccini or my Verdi from my Donizetti, but I know when something captivates, excites and moves me. The show was just over three hours with a brief interval but this seemed to fly by. Gavan Ring as Don Giovanni played the part with swagger and stage presence, but the real stand out moments were in the heartfelt arias from Anna, Elvira, Leporello, Ottavio, Masetto and Zerlina as these characters who had been wronged by Don Giovanni attempted to work through their feelings of betrayal, rage, pain and suffering to find resolution. I’ll admit that this makes this WNO production sound just as gloomy as the Siberian opera I didn’t like, but nothing could be further from the truth. As well as the tragedy there were plenty of moments of comedy, a wonderful example of this being the Catalogue aria performed by David Stout as Leporella, detailing Giovanni’s phenomenal amount of lovers. The show looks gorgeous and sumptuous due to the wonderful staging and lavish costumes from John Napier and Yoon Bae. I sometimes get distracted by the surtitles, despite obviously needing them to keep up with plot developments if the opera is sung in Italian. There seemed to be lots of space in this production though where the surtitles ceased so I was able to get lost in the emotion of it all rather than staying in a cerebral place as I processed the words. Opera is never short, but it’s a good measure of how much I enjoyed this show that it really didn’t drag like some have in the past for me. Don Giovanni is not the jolliest or most frivolous of operas so could be tricky for a beginner, but I’d still highly recommend it. It is great to be so close to the live orchestra and feel the bass notes reverberating in your chest, and you might just find Don Giovanni irresistible just as I did. Also, if you have ever been betrayed by a lover, then you will probably find his downfall cathartic and satisfying!
Tonight sees Tosca returning to the Bristol Hippodrome, and then on Saturday the season ends with Verdi’s La forza del destino. For tickets, follow head to the WNO website.