"Don Giovanni" is one of Mozart's more problematic operas. On the one hand it is a comparatively simple morality tale, of a rake punished for his crimes and his sexual excesses and ending in Hell; in Act 1 he murders the father of Donna Anna, whom he seduced, and at the end of Act 2 he is dragged off to Hades by the statue of the same father, which mysteriously comes alive. On the other hand, it is described as a "dramma giocoso", a comic opera. The mix is uneasy, the comedy only funny if you sympathise with a ruthless and compulsive sexual opportunist.
RC Theatre Productions present a version which is audacious, inventive and relevant, but although it chops the text by about an hour, it doesn't entirely get rid of the problems, and indeed adds a few of its own.
Topped and tailed by two Margaret Thatcher speeches, we are firmly in the world of 1987. A witty and versatile set proclaims the death of Andy Warhol, productions of "Cats" and "Phantom" newly opened; scenes are set in a Wimpy Bar. The Don becomes Don (Duncan Rock), the successful owner of the hippest nightclub in town, who uses the prospect of association with his glamour to conquer an endless succession of young men. This means that all other roles are sexually reversed - Donna Elvira becomes Eddie, Donna Anna is Alan, Zerlina Zac; while the fiancees Ottavio and Massetto are Petra and Marina. The father becomes the mother, and Leporello a sharp-suited PA, Leo, is played by a woman. Since the casting uses equivalent vocal ranges (high tenor for soprano, contralto for bass), this does less violence to Mozart's vocal balance than you might expect.
The action is played out in a promenade production involving 6 separate acting areas, and the text (lyrics by Ranjit Bolt) is peppered with slang and contemporary references - "You're my bitch now", "Have a word with your supplier" (lots of coke and pills), "I'm not going to invite a ghost to go clubbing". "You bastard!" is a kind of comedy catchphrase which Eddie/Donna Elvira bursts out with every time he enters and sees Don.
However, Bolt can't escape more conventional operatic diction ("Are you expecting my genuflecting?" "Sheer confusion!") so although much of it is witty, the combination is uneasy. The same might be said of the whole concept. As in the original, the wronged victims spend much time vowing vengeance, without anything very much happening, although it does give them the excuse for being onstage in some glorious ensembles.
One serious problem is the ending. Instead of being a moving statue, the Commendatore/Olivia bursts through a full-length poster of "Phantom" - witty touch, but set up the wrong kind of laughter in the audience. In this version, the figure is in Eddie's mind, and where he is heading is some kind of mental institution. Doesn't have anything like the same power and resonance, and the actor cannot offer a really harrowing crack-up.
Nor is it easy to care very much about the victims, because we know so little about them or where they come from. They are not helped by the costumes, which seem largely thrown together. This is meant to be a glamorous world of Armani and Gucchi. Frankly there was more style money in the audience on Press Night than on the stage. Don needs to exude power glamour - not in this costume, he doesn't.
The elephant in the corner is, of course, HIV/AIDS. We are a year or so after the notorious Iceberg advertising campaign, at a time when the club scene was being decimated by the virus. You would think it merited at least a mention, and indeed it could provide a way into the denouement. Maybe this is moving too close to "AIDS is the Judgement of God" territory for comfort, but this piece should not be comfortable, and, radical though it is, the production could benefit from pushing still further.
The cast is uneven musically, with some clearly coming from the world of musicals rather than opera. Don, Olivia and Eddie are all vocally assured, and work well in the multiple performance areas in a venue with unkind acoustics. Others have both projection and intonation problems (please cut Zac's attempt at coloratura, it's humiliating) and the balance of the ensembles is thrown off. The cut-down orchestra of 10 suffers from some sour string playing in places, but on the whole copes with a relentless score well.
It is difficult to say exactly who this show is aimed at. Conventional opera lovers are liable to be frustrated by the limitations; musical-goers will brighten to the Greatest Hits but be bored in the longueurs. But if it can serve as an accessible introduction to opera for people who've never been exposed to it, then it will have served a purpose. It's a brave, inventive take on a classic, for all its faults.
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