In Covent Garden’s new Don Giovanni, the libertine dresses in a fur-lined frock coat, exudes a far-from-rapacious energy and doesn’t go to hell. He alone occupies the stage during the final sextet, staring into the auditorium as if lecturing a 21st-century metropolitan audience on the wages of sexual excess. What an anticlimax.
Having misfired with his only previous show here (Eugene Onegin a year ago), director Kasper Holten plays safe, delivering a version of Mozart’s dramma giocoso that has clearly been designed to please its American co-producers: it scratches the surface. Holten has one box of tricks, which he plunders relentlessly to mask the vacuum of ideas and insights at the heart of the performance. The set (Es Devlin), a split-level façade that transforms itself into a house of multiple rooms and staircases, is plastered with a messy video sculpture (Luke Halls) of female names, assorted squiggles and colourful blotches.
The ensembles have been intelligently choreographed, but there’s a strong whiff of the operatic museum in the costumes (Anja Vang Kragh) and the conducting (Nicola Luisotti) – despite a handful of gratuitously “modern” flourishes in the fortepiano continuo.
Beneath this expensive veneer the cast struggle to carve a drama. Mariusz Kwiecien has the looks and voice of a high-class seducer, and you can see how effective he might be in a simpler, more focused staging. It’s hard to imagine a less temperamental or more musically austere Elvira than Véronique Gens, or a more anonymous Ottavio and Masetto than Antonio Poli and Dawid Kimberg. The sparks come from Malin Byström’s Anna and Elizabeth Watts’ Zerlina. Byström brings intensity and voluptuous vocalism to her two arias, while Watts turns “Batti, batti” into an song of seduction, claiming the entire audience as her conquest.
Alex Esposito’s Leporello is an effective comic foil, but it’s the sign of an unfulfilling show when the laughs come from the surtitles rather than the stagework. After the thrills and spills of Parsifal and Les Vêpres siciliennes at the end of last year, the Royal Opera has reverted to type as purveyor of pulp to the cultured masses.