Richard Bratby

Simply not as good as Mozart’s: RCM’s Don Giovanni Tenorio reviewed

Plus: a lush programme from LSO

Angharad Rowlands in the Royal Academy's Ariodante. Image: Craig Fuller

In Bernard Shaw’s Man and Superman, Don Giovanni finds himself in hell, chatting to the sentient Statue that dragged him to his doom. ‘It sounds rather flat without my trombones,’ admits the Statue, conceding that once you remove the genius of Mozart from the mix, you’re left with a trite (if titillating) morality tale. You could draw the same conclusion from the opera Don Giovanni Tenorio, by Giuseppe Gazzaniga (1743-1818), and if you haven’t heard of him you might wonder why not. Institutional racism? Patriarchal hegemony? Not this time. Gazzaniga was a Neapolitan composer of perfectly adequate operas that simply aren’t as good as Mozart’s.

Anyway, Don Giovanni Tenorio made an amusing end-of-term show at the Royal College of Music. Who wouldn’t be intrigued by a Don Giovanni premiered in 1787, eight months before Mozart’s? The fun lies in comparing and contrasting the two. How will Gazzaniga deal with Donna Elvira? When will the Commendatore arrive? Here’s the Catalogue Aria – funny, it sounds just like Mozart’s. Hang on, it actually is Mozart’s! Possibly to enhance the experience for the student cast, director Louise Bakker decided to insert a series of arias by Salieri and Mozart into Gazzaniga’s score. 

Angharad Rowlands’s ‘Scherza infida’ seemed to suspend time

In fairness, that was a common 18th-century practice. But unless you have a truly encyclopedic knowledge of obscure late classical opera buffa, it made it difficult to appraise Gazzaniga on his own merits. The impression was of a condensed, more cartoonish version of the story set by Mozart. Gone is any ambiguity in the opening scene with Donna Anna (Alexandra Dunaeva) and the exchanges with the Statue (David Fraser) are positively banal (he really is a bore without his trombones). Donna Elvira is the most fully realised female character, and Georgia Melville plays her with warmth and style. 

On the plus side there’s another conquest for the Don, one Donna Ximena (Ellen Pearson), while Zerlina (Gazzaniga calls her Maturina, and Henna Mun was delightfully sparky in the role) gets a piquant little Spanish number. Daniel Barrett is a likeable Leporello – he’s Pasquariello here – with a smoky tone that contrasted nicely with Marcus Swietlicki’s forceful, focused singing as Giovanni. Swietlicki portrayed the Don as your basic bastard; all the more impressive, then, that he came across as engagingly as he did. Bakker’s workmanlike direction was no bad thing with an unknown opera, though the sets and costumes could have been less rudimentary. But it was fun to hear some Gazzaniga and the orchestra (under Michael Rosewell) sounded like it enjoyed itself, too. 

The Royal Academy of Music’s production of Handel’s Ariodante was in another class. Olivia Fuchs directed, with designs by Yannis Thavoris, and the result wouldn’t have looked out of place on a professional stage: located inside an abstract white box and peopled by what appeared to be refugees from London Fashion Week. Fuchs began with a whiteboard on which the cast took turns to write out the basic moral principles of the baroque universe (the audience sniggered at the line ‘Gender is binary’). If Fuchs, like many contemporary directors, is unable to stomach the values Handel sets out to celebrate, this was at least an efficient and honest way of working around the problem.

It left us free to focus on character and music: which proved captivating in this slimmed and trimmed version, with expressive period-aware playing from the orchestra under David Bates, and a uniformly fine and committed cast. Erin O’Rourke was a mischievous Dalinda, Charles Cunliffe made a noble King of Scotland and Clara Orif managed to be both poignant and precious as Ginevra. Ariodante tends to steal this particular show and with her silvery, shaded mezzo and poetic phrasing no one will have begrudged Angharad Rowlands her ovation. Her ‘Scherza infida’ seemed to suspend time.

At the Barbican, the London Symphony Orchestra played a particularly lush programme under Duncan Ward – a British conductor who first made his mark about a decade ago, and whom I’ve heard dismissed by some orchestral players. What matters here is that he evidently does click with the LSO, and works with them frequently. In collaboration with violinist Isabelle Faust – who took a pensive, unflashy approach to Bartok’s First Violin Concerto and Chausson’s Poème – he was clearly a sympathetic and attentive musical partner.

Janacek’s Taras Bulba dominated the first half, a garish symphonic revenge-fantasy by one of music’s loopier blood-and-soil nationalists that gets a pass because it sounds incredible. Ward stripped it down, cleaned it up and recentred the piece on those psychedelic orchestral colours – the screaming clarinets; the sudden, bizarre timpani interventions – so it became a sort of concerto for orchestra. I think I prefer it that way.