Is Don Giovanni the “graveyard for directors”, as legend would have us believe? Of course not. Like most great operas, it offers endless scope for interpretation. All a director needs is a handful of fertile ideas and the skill to adapt them to the stage. So it is hard to explain why Alessandro Talevi, one of the most thoughtful of young directors on the international scene, should make such a mess of Mozart’s dramma giocoso in his new production for Opera North.
Talevi and his designer Madeleine Boyd clearly understand the background. Decor and costumes include veiled references to Venice, commedia dell’arte and class distinction, each of which helps to profile the seducer as an archetype through the ages. But everything else is such a muddle that it is impossible to know what Talevi wants to achieve.
Giovanni and Leporello resemble a duo of music hall entertainers, Donna Anna and Don Ottavio a pair of Victorian waxwork models. The peasants are 1950s dolls and spivs. Some scenes take the form of a Punch and Judy show, with the singers’ heads attached to puppet-like extensions that gesticulate through a window in the stage-curtain. Laughs are engineered in a way that seems vulgar or irrelevant: when Giovanni deceives the peasants into thinking he is Leporello, they snort and crawl like pigs.
There’s little to distinguish this from a student production, where scenes stretch out in utter tedium and nothing – barring a couple of Donna Elvira’s costumes – seems remotely relevant to our age. Maybe the time has come for Talevi and Boyd to go their separate ways, for none of their recent work has had anything like the sophistication of their productions for the late, lamented Independent Opera.
For a sense of drama, the performance depends on Tobias Ringborg’s conducting; despite occasional problems of co-ordination, his flexible tempi bring welcome life to the stage. William Dazeley, an esteemed regular at Opera North, does not come across as a natural Giovanni, any more than the hard-working Alastair Miles is a born Leporello. Of the rest, Elizabeth Atherton’s Elvira makes the best showing, notably in her well-schooled “Mi tradì”.