Don Giovanni – Review – Scottish Opera

Rating: ★★★☆☆

Scottish Opera has a solid and pleasing Don Giovanni but one which, though it contains some fine singing, takes few risks and makes few demands of its audience. Sir Thomas Allen sang the title role for years so knows the piece inside out, therefore this opportunity to direct the work must presumably be a distillation of the insight and wisdom that he acquired though working with countless others on different productions.

Things began well enough with a strange masked figure suddenly appearing centre stage and beckoning the audience in during the initial doom laden chords of the overture. The mask was the first clue that we had been transported to Venice. We seemed to be there rather than Seville in order for a gondola to make a couple of appearances at the back of the stage. Other than that, it wasn’t immediately apparent why we were not in Spain.

The overture continued at a decidedly steady pace whilst the audience looked at a gauze screen in front of a dark stage. Eventually, when the lights on the stage went up, we found Leporello (Peter Kalman) hunched in a corner. Alas, the gauze remained firmly in place for the singing of the first scene, obscuring the view of what was going on. Some clichéd rushing clouds were briefly projected onto it. However, it is difficult to know why this was left in place unless to emphasise that the murder of the Commendatore (Jóhann Smári Saevarsson) was taking place at night when it was Difficult To See. If that were the case, it would have been better to trust the instincts of lighting designer Mark Jonathan who engineered a series of brilliantly moody atmospheres throughout the whole evening and who would have been better described as a Shadow Designer. The set by Simon Higlett was pleasant enough to look at – dusty street scenes and rich interiors but scene changes seemed ponderously long and sometimes rather noisy.

Kalman’s Leporello was the first voice to be heard in a balanced and reasonably confident cast. Indeed, his Catalogue Aria had more confidence than comedy about it, though he was later to get more laughs by continuing to sing whilst apparently eating chicken legs. He had a bold, assertive quality to his voice which one knew straight away was going to be one of the great strengths of the evening.

Jacques Imbrailo’s Giovanni, Kalman well and they made an interesting pair – sometimes more a couple of mates who had got themselves into scrapes than strictly master and servant. It is Giovanni’s mission to seduce all around him – not only his women but also his audience. This Imbrailo proceeded to accomplish with some aplomb. His baritone voice brought a polished and suitably aristocratic air to this Giovanni and there was no doubt that he was always one step ahead of everyone around him.

One of the most difficult parts to make sense of in Don Giovanni is surely Donna Elvira. Her vacillations over whether or not she trusts the central character go backwards and forwards. Lisa Milne wrung her hands and wrung her heart out over whether or not to trust him. She managed to find the necessary light and shade in her voice to bring out these sudden changes in desire.  Though her fury was always more exciting than her affection she rose up and firmly grabbed hold of all that was expected of her.

A late substitution of Anita Watson for Susan Gritton who had been billed to sing Donna Anna brought a very confident and bright soprano to the stage. Her apparently relaxed ability to step into this role was rewarding and quite a delight to listen to.

Barnaby Rea’s Masetto was cheerful on the ear but grumpy by inclination as he became more and more exasperated by Zerlina, his intended. His attempt to keep her in one place by tying her up as she sang her apologies brought out something rather dark in their relationship, though she didn’t seem to be complaining. His rich and rewarding tone was a delight on its own and perfectly complimented Anna Devin’s Zerlina.

Indeed, Ms Devin had the sweetest singing amongst the entire cast. It was not merely her dove-like gentleness which was a pleasure but also that the orchestra could be kept from overwhelming her. The sensitivity which conductor Speranza Scappucci managed to inspire from the orchestra was never more apparent than during her “Vedrai, carino” which was the most delightful way of banishing any memories of previous Musical Director Francis Corti’s domineering heavy-handed conducting which dogged the company right up until his departure earlier this year.

Similarly, was the watchword for Ed Lyon’s Don Ottavio. Though bedecked in an unfortunate wig which resembled a wet day at a spaniel show, Lyon sang with a delicate purity, particularly during “Il mio tesoro”.

Both dramatically and musically, this Don Giovanni was a little subdued. There were several good ideas which were not developed. The appearance of the masked figure at the very beginning was rather enticing. Could such a silent figure have been some kind of narrator or Puck-ish demon through the whole piece? We never found out – masked figures moved the scenery but never directly related to the audience again. Similarly, Leporello was much more implicated in the Commendatore’s murder than one usually sees (his hand was on the weapon along with Giovanni’s) yet though this was obviously a point deliberately made, it went undeveloped later on. The surreal appearance of two blank-faced nuns in the second act was never entirely explained. The splendid cornettes which adorned their heads told us that they were Daughters of Charity but didn’t really tell us much about why they were simply standing around on the streets of Venice. Meanwhile, Ms Scappucci tended towards rather cautious (or might we say indulgent) tempi throughout the piece.

The most exciting dramatic moment came at the end of the first act when Don Giovanni made his escape by walking into the fireplace of his room and striding right through a blazing fire and into the darkness. This was breathtaking and one can only presume that he was wearing asbestos knickerbockers.

Fire-proof underwear might well be a metaphor for what Scottish Opera needs at the moment. This production came just days after the news broke that it had already lost its new Music Director Emmanuel Joel-Hornak, who left without conducting a note of music less than two months after being appointed. Scottish Opera is currently subject to intense press speculation that not all is well within its company. Given the apparent crisis, it is commendable that such that a musically coherent new production such as this made it onto the stage at all. However, ultra-safe choices seem to be being made and this was one third of the company’s whole output for the main stage this year.

This was a pleasing and pleasant production. However, Don Giovanni’s breeches were not the only things which didn’t quite catch fire.


  1. Robin says

    Every time I see Don Giovanni, I am on tenterhooks as the Commendatore urges him to repent. I inwardly urge him, “Don’t give in! DON’T GIVE IN! Go down to Hell gloriously and triumphantly!”

    I know I shouldn’t feel like this, but I do; and the feeling is extraordinarily powerful.

  2. I think in this production he did pretty much go gloriously and proudly.

  3. George Waite says

    Wow-Episcopal Kirk minister (sorry-priest-keep forgetting)AND into opera AND gay? All three? What are the odds?

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