Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Don Giovanni, Heaven Nightclub

via londonist.com
Shakespeare's finest vehicle roles, Hamlet or Richard III have both been undertaken by women actors. So, given the calibre of the precedent, why not Mozart's Don Giovanni? Of course, the issue which sets Giovanni apart from Shakespeare's lead roles is the sex. Existential hand-wringing and political intrigue are easily transferable but the idea of a same-sex philanderer is a more tricky conceit. Sensibly, the company mounting this production (which comes on the back* of a trial run in Trafalgar Square three years ago) have not hedged their bets. Instead they have left Giovanni as a man and reversed the sex of the rest of the cast. Additionally, the opera is set in 1987, when homosexuality broke out into overt social consciousness.

This spirited and ambitious production half pulls it off*. Staged in a promenade style in Heaven nightclub - arguably the country's most high-profile gay nightspot - the singers perform acoustically with a live chamber orchestra conducted by Collin Pettet. A gantry and a stage are more advantageous than daises in the centre or to the side, certainly in terms of sightline, but it is the re-allocation of the sung roles that presents the greatest obstacle. All three soprano roles become tenors. Mark Dugdale's Zach (for Zerlina) is the most successful by virtue of his clear annunciation (Mark Cunningham's raucously bitter banker-for-Elvira, Eddie also makes himself heard). Like the libretto adaptations in the OperaUpClose project, the text is key to the scrambled conceit gaining credence and so traction. No doubt this is also the reason that soprano Zoë Bonner was cast as the Leporello - now Leo, PA to Giovanni (himself simply called Don). Her stage presence and delivery of text make weight where singing an improperly low tessitura couldn't carry. The male lovers became two sopranos and the Commendatore is cast as a mezzo-soprano (Petra) providing the one low voice other than Don's.

More than a juggling of tessitura, the roles are written with characteristics of the sex of voice in mind. But then, this is where the strange alchemy of performing this piece begins to work where one least expects it. Clearly, the sex-reversal is meant ingenuously, unlike the allocation of women's voice for men's parts* in so-called trouser roles elsewhere in the repertory. Part of the intrigue, it would seem, is in playing with the sex-gender assumptions that is a cultural preserve of gay recreation. This is certainly apparent in the re-translation and demonstrably in this most gay space, where throwaway jokes about women's perfume or menstruation get particularly knowing laughs, as if they have an extra facet of significance. Indeed I have footnoted a number of innocent lines in this blogpost thus*, which might otherwise go unheeded but here acquire an extra entendre.

There'a also an issue with the doppelgänger pairing of the original. Equally voiced men Giovanni and Leporello become the unequally voiced (once again, in both sounding tessitura and how that affects performance) Don and Leo as well as consigning that doppelgänger-interchangeability to redundancy. The identity-switch re-seduction of Elvira plot thread is shelved in its entirety, no huge loss in a necessarily truncated adaptation - although it must be said that Don's crowing at having seduced one of Leo's lovers in the graveyard/park bench scene takes on an increased tartness.

Mozart's Don Giovanni, along with as this hybrid updating is meant to be fun. It's also meant to be extremely serious. Again it's to the credit of those adapting the original that the moral centre of the work gets skewed away from the ethics of sex; the jokes and fun depend on the in-jokiness of the sex too much for it to have traction as a moral issue. Instead, the subject issues of chastity and supernatural damnation become socio-political issues of coming out and the bland, municipal loneliness of ageing, especially in socially privatised Britain, a high concept bookending the show as Thatcherite appearances.

On balance for me this show doesn't quite work. The opera is too scrambled (aesthetically), the staging not sufficiently sympathetic an advocate of performance of the music. It also doesn't help that no-one really decided what to call it: Don Giovanni 1987 on the programme, @DonGio2012 on Twitter and (most dizzyingly) Don Giovanni the opera for a website! However, it leaves plenty to talk about. One of the most important things to discuss is the suitability of Duncan Rock as the eponymous Don. He may get a head start as the only character singing the role in the voice for which it is written but sing it he does, mightily and with all the confidence the character demands. He's also a fine looking lead man, especially with his shirt off, which is above averagely important; it's a rare role for a genuine barihunk. I was also left impressed by Petra, the Commendatore-like mother of the Donna Anna substitute. This is a tricky role given that it is necessarily re-written with different motives. Tamsin Dalley is a considerable, thoughtful presence from the shocked mother of a closeted affianced boy, to the socially marginalised bag lady (in place of the Commendatore's memorial statue) and finally simply absorbing all the twittering delight at a camp-coup entry for the finale, bringing the gravitas that the conclusion must have to invest the rest of the piece with value.

Additionally, the costuming is nicely put together, especially for the women. Helen Winter (Masetto/Marina)'s Desperately Seeking Susan ensemble as she waits Zach's return in the club or Zoë Bonner's Human League-a-like Leo accessorised with tombstone Filofax are winners, as is the uptight Sloane Ranger collection for the Ottavio/Olivia of (sadly underused) Stephanie Edwards. The lighting is also appropriately precise, given that Don's villa has conveniently become a nightclub; consequently I was delighted by the classy Act 1 closing disco arrangement of Mozart's party music and not at all surprised to see that it had been arranged by that genuine Renaissance man of 1980s electropop, Depeche Mode & Erasure's Vince Clarke.

*pun not intended on this occasion

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