All opera goers booking tickets for an old favourite such as Mozart’s Don Giovanni must wonder if the director and conductor will bring anything fresh to the work. What a delight to go to Opera Holland Park and soon realise there was an evening of surprises in store.
John Savournin as Leporello and Ashley Riches as Don Giovanni. Photograph © Robert Workman
It is hard for any creative team to approach such a central work as Don Giovanni and make it their own. Director Oliver Platt and Australian conductor Dane Lam, supported by a fine cast, aim for freshness and originality without betraying the demands of the libretto and score of this much-loved piece.
Platt sets the opera on a 1920’s transatlantic liner where the class structure of life at sea fits neatly with the opera’s demands and also gives Giovanni ample opportunities for female liaisons. The clever set design by Neil Irish brings the singers well forward which suits the Holland Park acoustics. Not everything fits perfectly into the demands of the plot, but audiences are readily drawn into the conceit. Suspending disbelief pays dividends, revealing delightful touches of humour and the freshness of the sea air blows away the cobwebs of preconception.
Australian soprano Lauren Fagan as Donna Anna. Photograph © Robert Workman
There are some fine singers to support the enterprise. Ashley Riches makes a masterful Don Giovanni. Tall, suave and honey-toned he oozes a sense of privilege and entitlement. The comic timing of John Savournin’s Leporello matches his musical ability and together they make a perfect conspiratorial team.
Australian soprano Lauren Fagan as Donna Anna is in excellent voice. Her time as a Jette Parker sponsored singer at Covent Garden has paid dividends. The voice is capable of strong steely tones but turns in a second to give real warmth when needed. The various emotional demands of the score are beautifully encompassed in a moving performance. This is her first Donna Anna (outside the concert hall) and she makes the role her own to the delight of an appreciative audience.
Victoria Simmons as Donna Elvira sings beautifully and strikes a perfect balance between comic pathos and personal tragedy. She is an intelligent and sensitive performer who works hard for Platt as director, maintaining a strong musical integrity. Ellie Laugharne and Ian Beadle as Zerlina and Masetto are also strongly cast both giving excellent performances. Graeme Broadbent as the Commendatore is both authoritative and sonorous. He also makes a wonderful corpse in the meat larder of the ship’s kitchens.
Sadly, Ben Johnson as Don Ottavio was indisposed due to ill health, but this gave Opera Holland Park an opportunity to demonstrate one of the strengths of its performing policies. The company employs a group of young artists to assist with directing, conducting and understudying roles and dedicates a performance of each opera, allowing them to take centre stage. Therefore, when the talented Joel Williams stepped in to sing the role he was fully rehearsed and relishing the opportunity to sing ahead of his designated slot. Williams has a warm, beautifully toned tenor voice and will be a singer to watch.
Ashley Riches as Don Giovanni, Lauren Fagan as Donna Anna and John Savournin as Leoporello. Photograph © Robert Workman
Lam, who appeared last year at Opera Holland Park conducting Rossini’s Cenerentola, once again demonstrated a great deal of musical panache. Like many in the audience, I have heard countless performances of Don Giovanni so the bar was set high. Lam is highly skilled as a conductor who understands the limitation of short rehearsal times and the often difficult acoustics at Holland Park. The City of London Sinfonia obviously enjoy working with him and respond eagerly to his musical direction. There may have been the odd tempo here and there that I disagreed with, but Lam gives an excellent interpretation of the score and is entirely at home with the demands of a Mozart opera. He is sensitive to his singers’ needs and every change of tone and mood in the score. I hope it is not long before audiences at Opera Holland Park get to see him again.
A highly enjoyable evening and a refreshing take on an opera which remains an old favourite.
Don Giovanni plays in Holland Park until June 24