Richard Bratby

The final scenes are a knockout: Glyndebourne’s Don Giovanni reviewed

Plus: Garsington's Barber of Seville looked good, sounded delicious and the audience laughed even before they’d had their picnics

The more than usually ambiguous sidekick Leporello (Mikhail Timoshenko) and a compelling Don Giovanni (Andrey Zhilikhovsky) in Glyndebourne's new production. Credit: © Glyndebourne Productions Ltd. Photo: Monika Rittershaus

Are you supposed to laugh at the end of Don Giovanni? Audiences often do, and they did at the end of Mariame Clément’s new production at Glyndebourne. It’s usually the bit where Donna Anna’s fiancé Don Ottavio suggests that they get married sharpish, and she immediately asks him for a year’s delay. Readers of Middlemarch will know that a year’s formal mourning after the death of a close relative was a common pre-modern convention, and Mozart’s writings suggest that he (if not his librettist) questioned neither the sanctity of marriage nor the reality of Hell. That doesn’t bother many modern directors, though, and if they’ve presented Anna as a kickass girl boss and Ottavio as a clingy milksop (not that hard, to be fair) it generally gets a reliable guffaw.

That wasn’t the case here, exactly. True, there was plenty to laugh at – Elvira’s late-onset commitment to a life of prayer is another trigger for contemporary mirth, heightened in this instance by the fact that we’ve just seen her attempting to fellate Leporello. But it didn’t feel like laughter at a punchline; more like the genuine release of tension that da Ponte presumably intended, and which Mozart wrote into the brilliant, borderline-hysterical quavers that introduce the final ensemble. In Clément’s production there really was a shock to react against. Giovanni’s fate was as startling and as visually spectacular as any 18th-century audience could have wished. No post-modern fudging here: you’re left in no doubt at all that higher powers are in play and that the Don (Andrey Zhilikhovsky) is basically toast.

Giovanni’s fate was as startling and as visually spectacular as any 18th-century audience could have wished

Oleksiy Palchykov’s Ottavio, meanwhile, was no sitcom boyfriend but a figure of integrity and weight, however ineffective his campaign against Giovanni. Palchykov’s tenor is trim rather than sensual, but he shaped his lines with such poise and sincerity that you could understand why Leporello (Mikhail Timoshenko) was listening with every sign of admiration: the alternative to Giovanni didn’t look at all bad. This Leporello is already half out of love with his master – a perceptive and more than usually ambiguous sidekick who, with his brown suit, spectacles and moustache (the setting was a modern-ish resort hotel, infested with stag and hen parties), resembled a put-upon clerk in an Italian new wave comedy. His character arc, this time, is not what you might expect.

Clément makes Giovanni compelling without glamourising him (or at least, glamourising him any more than Mozart, da Ponte and our own baser instincts demand). There’s a cold hard chill on the edges of Zhilikhovsky’s dashing baritone that contrasts tellingly with Timoshenko’s plainer but warmer singing, and points up the cynicism of his encounters with Anna and Elvira (Venera Gimadieva and Ruzan Mantashyan, both of whom managed to project sweetness as well as steel) and even Victoria Randem’s crunking party girl Zerlina. The characterisation went some way to carrying the drama over the patches (noticeable in Act Two) where Clément’s direction seemed to stutter. But by the final banquet – with Giovanni sprawling in his vest atop a gargantuan, mouldering cream cake (fair play to the props department; it was enough to put you right off your Nyetimber) – it all came together at pace and again, those final scenes were a knockout.

Keep an ear out, too, for the conductor Evan Rogister, who went at it with terrific verve and had the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment playing with a reckless, headlong virtuosity that (probably unfairly) I hadn’t really expected from them. The brass roared, percussion thundered and in the climactic scenes it all boiled up and flooded the auditorium with harmonies and colours of Wagnerian darkness and power. Late classical opera really suits period instruments. The OAE was on fire at Glyndebourne and at Garsington the English Concert (an orchestra whose own music director once quit out of sheer boredom) was fizzing like an Aperol spritz. Douglas Boyd (a seriously underrated maestro) carved, and the opera was Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia.

No tricksy stuff here, either. Christopher Luscombe’s production takes place in a 1920s Italian townscape (the designer is Simon Higlett) which revolves to reveal the gleaming deco interior of Bartolo’s luxury townhouse. Cue gasps of delight: meanwhile Figaro (Johannes Kammler) rides a bicycle, Almaviva (Andrew Stenson) is bright young thing and Rosina (Katie Bray) is a minxy far-from-silent starlet with a Marcel wave. This show could get a long way on charm alone, but it doesn’t need to, because without singling out any individual cast members (OK: Callum Thorpe as Basilio exuded a double-espresso vocal kick out of all proportion to the scale of his role) the singing was consistently sunny and supple, and Boyd and his band matched it for grace, colour and wit. It looked good, it sounded delicious and the audience laughed even before they’d had their picnics. That’s entertainment.