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BWW Review: DON GIOVANNI, London Coliseum, 30 September 2016

English National Opera has been having a hard time with Don Giovanni lately. First there was Calixto Bieito's groggy, pastel-coloured nightmare (who could forget the pistachio leather dentist's chair), which paled into adequacy when compared to Rufus Norris's bafflingly unlovely (and just generally baffling) vision that followed. Richard Jones's new production is in no way a failure - there's far too much intelligence here for that, as well as more than one flash of utter brilliance - but it still feels like a show as yet not fully in focus. At his best Jones can make the most startlingly revisionist concept seem like it has always been staring you in face. Here his reading intrigues, compels, but never feels fully rooted in Mozart's music-drama.

A solitary lamppost and a phone box initially suggest we're in for an evening of 1950s noir, but Jones has something even blacker planned. The curtain rises on a hotel - not seedy, not grotty, just grey. Its endless corridors of identical doors are the bland face on a town's inadmissible desires and deviances. In one room Giovanni processes his conveyor belt of women, but in another the Commendatore cavorts with a prostitute. Even Donna Anna is here, begging Giovanni to fulfil her rape fantasy, handing him the knife, the balaclava, placing his hands just so around her throat.

True intimacy is nowhere to be found; relationships take place down a phone line, or at arm's length, or not at all. What we see instead are the many substitutes a community can find to replace it - abuse, impassioned arguments, a lip-service engagement and an even lower-muttered marriage. Among so much drab dysfunctionality, so much neediness, Christopher Purves's Giovanni stands apart. He neither leers nor lunges, scarcely taking action at all, save to gratify the women (and the occasional man) who choose him, come to him, seduce him.

It's a powerful picture, and Purves has a powerful presence, but it's a directorial decision that emasculates the Don even as it empowers him. Our hero's energy, his agency, comes from sleaze, from power, from the skill of his seductions. Take away all of this (along with quite a lot of his recitative) and you're left with an absence at the heart of the piece. Giovanni's desires might be concealed in all of us ("Je Suis Giovanni", Jones seems to say), but we just don't wear them as well.

Amanda Holden's translation makes exhilaratingly free with Da Ponte's libretto, spinning a brand new text for a new take on the opera. It's delicious, a rare justification for ENO's opera-in-English policy, and a decision that unmoors us even further from the opera we know too well. Anything can happen here (and does in Ottavio's "Il Mio Tesoro", Anna's "Non mi dir" and a number of other brilliantly reimagined episodes).

If Jones's vision has another weakness it's the unremitting joylessness of its visuals, sustained with determination by Mimi Jordan Sherin's bleak, life-sucking lighting and Paul Steinberg's drab designs. But when these are balanced against such richly coloured vocal performances as Mark Wigglesworth gets here, it gives them a much needed friction. We've seen a lot of mediocre American imports at ENO recently, but soprano Caitlyn Lynch (making her ENO debut here) is not among them. Strongly projected and carefully shaded, her Donna Anna is as complicated a creature musically as she is dramatically. It helps that she has Allan Clayton's outstanding Don Ottavio to play off. If we've heard a better performance of this role in this house it hasn't been in my opera-going lifetime.

It's Christine Rice, however, who finds the most dangerously truthful emotional places in this production, giving us an Elvira whose madness is extreme but never overworked. Cunning, desperate, vulnerable - it's in Rice rather than Purves that we see the real horror of the piece. Much has been made of the unusually mature pairing of Purves and Clive Bayley as Giovanni and Leporello, and it's a dynamic that adds a calculated, well-practised brutality to proceedings. Vocally, though, it's Bayley who dominates, with Purves seemingly determined not to give his hero even the smallest redeeming moment of fully-sung beauty.

Mark Wigglesworth conducts a pacy, light-footed account of the score, but on opening night its speed seemed to unsettle his cast a little, causing more than a bit of rushing from the stage and setting up an uncharacteristic battle with the pit. Doubtless this will settle as the run continues.

The production ends with the most audacious (yet somehow entirely inevitable) twist. It's vintage Jones - psychologically accurate, utterly inspired and bold as hell. To reveal it would be unfair; it's a dramatic punchline that hits all the harder for its slow reveal. Go and earn it for yourself.

Don Giovanni at London Coliseum until 26 October

Picture Credit: Robert Workman

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From This Author Alexandra Coghlan