by Roderick Conway Morris

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Gardiner's 'Don Giovanni'

By Roderick Conway Morris
PARMA, Italy 18 May 1994


Although it is an important teaching and musical research center, and the home of the Institute of Verdi Studies (the composer was born in a village close by), Parma would not instantly spring to mind as one of Italy's leading opera houses. But, while many big-league houses are financially and artistically in the doldrums, the Teatro Regio proved that it is capable of staging a superb, international-class show, when it premiered John Eliot Gardiner's new production of Mozart's 'Don Giovanni.'

'Don Giovanni' is a musical and theatrical walk on the high wire, a death trap to uninspired plodders and the overconfident and ill-prepared alike, but the conductor Gardiner, the young Italian-American stage director Lorenzo Mariani, the English Baroque Soloists and Monteverdi Choir carry off this production with consummate panache.

After the warm-up of Mozart's most gripping and frenetic overture, Don Giovanni's servant, Leporello, hardly has time to finish his complaint about his lack of job satisfaction, before the priapic arch-seducer appears, half pursued, half dragged back by a wild-eyed Donna Anna, whose virtue he has just been assailing. Donna Anna's father, the Commendatore, enters. He and Don Giovanni fight - and the older man is stabbed to death.

This could have been the finale of a story. Instead, the dramatic tension has to be maintained for the rest of the opera -- which depicts Don Giovanni's inexorable slide to damnation, almost seducing on the way a pretty country girl, Zerlina, on her wedding day; fending off the public denunciations of a discarded ex, Donna Elvira, and daring the statue of the defunct Commendatore to come to sup with him. Amusingly, in this production the carved marble Commendatore trundles up for the dinner date, seated like Abe Lincoln on his monument and preceded by a New Orleans funeral-style procession of baroque trombones.

'Don Giovanni' is an opera buffa, or, as it as described on the title page of the 1788 Vienna edition that was used for this production, a dramma giocoso (a playful, semi- serious piece in the manner of Goldoni). Lorenzo Da Ponte's libretto was based on earlier works, but expands and transforms them and introduces far more subtle and complex characterization. As a young man, Da Ponte had energetically sowed his wild oats in Venice and had fallen in with a degenerate, profligate, promiscuous and violently inclined aristocratic brother and sister (whose lover he became), the sole recollection of whom must have provided plenty of inspiration for his portrayal of the opera's principal protagonist.

Mozart, produced a score of an intensity often described, with justice, as verging on the 'demonic.'

All the singers, including the chorus, in Gardiner's production deserve high commendation. The young American baritone Rodney Gilfry's Don Giovanni - presented in Mariani's consistently imaginative direction as a kind of rich, bullying, mad-bad-and-dangerous-to- know rock star, simultaneously repulsive, yet handsome and credibly attractive to his victims - was a tour de force of acting and vocal command. Two Italian newcomers, Ildebrando D'Arcangelo (LeporHL ello) and Andrea Silvestrelli (Il Commendatore), both under 30, revealed captivating richness of tones and bore witness to Gardiner's considerable talent-spotting abilities.

NO less accomplished were the Dutch Charlotte Margiono (Donna Elvira), the Slovakian Luba Orgonasova (Donna Anna), and the Welsh soprano Eirian James, who brought a perky, naive, saucy seductiveness to the part of Zerlina, Julian Clarkson providing a convincingly decent but doltish foil as her groom, Masetto. Christoph Pregadien's sweetness of voice lent a pathos to the tricky role of Donna Anna's fiancé, Don Ottavio. The English Baroque Soloists led by Alison Bury left one, once again, in awe as to quite how they do it.

Further performances: Thursday and Sunday, Parma; June 5 and 7, Amsterdam; June 9 and 11, London, and July 8 and 12, Ludwigsburg, Germany.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024