Monday, November 21, 2016

NI Opera’s Don Giovanni - a murderous predator runs amok in a watertight performance

When the curtain rises, I’m never quite sure what set to expect at an NI Opera production. Salome was based in a deep south drug baron’s ranch; Turandot in a Chinese sweat shop producing baby dolls.

For this weekend’s performances of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, the sleazy lothario and serial abuser (played by Henk Neven) was pitched on board a cruise ship, and the women and men caught up in the debauchery of the occupant of cabin 666 were trapped at sea with no escape.

Donna Anna (Hye-Youn Lee) avowed revenge against the person responsible for murdering her father. Another passenger Donna Elvira (Rachel Kelly) became reacquainted with the lover who abandoned her. Below decks, waitress Zerlina (Aoife Miskelly) was pregnant and about to get married when she entered the magnetic sights of predator Don Giovanni to be his next “little recreation”.

John Molloy played Leporella who was Don Giovanni’s servant (or steward). His early scene set the comedic tone that bubbled under the more serious depravity. Illustrating the scale of his boss’s lust using a scrapbook of mug shots and flags was a fabulously pantomime-esque device. And the Trump-like wig that was used in the Don Giovanni-Leporella swap scene was more contemporary than the original spring 2015 Danish production could have imagined.

Being an opera, the action came thick and fast with a murder and blood on the ship’s floor within the first ten minutes. Scenes cleverly switched between a promiscuous corridor of cabins at the front of the stage and the enormous space behind which doubled up as a sun lounge, ball room, and bar amongst other locations. The production’s sense of comedy extended to Annemarie Woods’ set which gradually exposes new and ever more elaborate revelations until its finally watery end. And the inclusion of a comedy dancing biscuit – or was it a clam – was both baffling and hilarious.

The principals were well matched with no one performer overpowering the many duets. Aoife Miskelly probably delivered the most consistently interesting performance. The musical mix between orchestra and cast was much better balanced than previous productions I’ve reviewed, with the Ulster Orchestra delivering a well-defined and fast-moving score that accompanied rather than dominated. While diction was good, vibrato and the muddiness that results from the depth of stage meant that, even though the performance used an English translation, considerable chunks might as well have been sung in Italian. For sake of accessibility – a key tenet of NI Opera’s philosophy – surtitles must surely be built into the set and staging of future large-scale performances.

The one weakness of the staging was the lighting which – other than the sun-soaked deck side scene – was gloomy and left many performers singing key scenes in each other’s shadow, particularly with the peculiar side lighting that dominated the front-of-stage corridor scenes. The Grand Opera House’s policy of allowing late admissions to the auditorium (five or ten minutes after the performance had begun) was disruptive and the ushers’ torches would have been less distracting and helped the production if they’d been trained on the stage rather than pointed at the already seated audience.

While I loved the gruesome re-imagining of Turandot with its huge set and large scale cast, Don Giovanni wins my vote for favourite NI Opera production. Creatively, Oliver Mears demonstrated a control of music and staging that delivered an entertaining and watertight performance. NI’s loss will be the Royal Opera House’s gain when he moves to become their Director of Opera early next year.

Photo credit: Robert Workman 

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