Donna Anna’s Game

Mozart’s Don Giovanni***

Royal Opera House

Video wizardry has a starring role in Kasper Holten’s new staging of Don Giovanni.  Women’s names spread like a plague of graffiti over set designer Es Devlin’s solid chunk of masonry during the overture.  The names are reminders of Don Giovanni’s conquests noted in a little black book by his servant Leporello.  Luke Halls’s hyper-active video designs streak the revolving palazzo with colour to emphasise drama and create whirling kaleidoscopes to underline the characters’ emotional confusion.

It leaves the audience confused too, at times.  When Malin Bystrom’s Donna Anna pursues Mariusz Kwiecien’s rakish Don as he leaves her bedroom she seems determined to drag him back into her arms rather than those of the law.   It’s only when he kills her father the Commendatore while escaping that she comes up with the story for her wimpish fiancé Ottavio (Antonio Poli)  of assault by a stranger intent on rape.  Later, at Don Giovanni’s palazzo she slides off for a tryst with the supposed rapist, during the devoted Ottavio’s aria “Dalla sua pace” (my peace depends on hers.)

Zerlina, too, is a more than usually tricky minx.  Having agreed to meet Giovanni, once inside closed doors she rips open her bodice and starts screaming.  Is this a misogynist message about women permitting sex and then crying rape?  Whatever the director’s intention, it lessens involvement, and adds nothing to the cynical humour of  Lorenzo da Ponte’s libretto.

What we wait for at the end is fitting retribution for the libertine as the statue of the dead Commendatore summons him to hell.   This begins in true “House of Horror” style.  The Commendatore’s blood-stained spectre haunts the palazzo, along with shrouded ghosts of seduced women melting into the constantly shifting walls.   At the end, though, Giovanni succumbs not to flames of hell, but to a nervous breakdown, brought on no doubt by his inner demons.   The subsequent recitative from his victorious opponents is cut and the moral message sung offstage. It makes an oddly abrupt ending.

Polish baritone Mariusz Kwiecien is a sleazily attractive Don, well matched by Alex Esposito as his conniving servant Leporello.   Swedish soprano Bystrom’s cool blonde Donna Anna contrasts nicely with Veronique Gens’s  darkly passionate Donna Elvira – Giovanni’s rejected mistress.  Elizabeth Watts is a perky Zerlina, while South African baritone Dawid Kimberg is a force to be reckoned with as Zerlina’s wronged fiancé Masetto.  Ukrainian bass Alexander Tsymbalyuk is a Commendatore whose baleful presence permeates the opera.

The orchestra under Nicola Luisotti is sometimes uneven in tempo, though overall sets a brisk pace to match the frantic videos.  Anja Vang Kragh’s mid-19th century costume designs for the Donnas Anna and Elvira are gorgeous with rustling taffeta and pleated silk.  There’s certainly plenty to look at, though the constant visual distraction amounts to overkill.