Mozart with attitude as Da Ponte is updated to 2012
Don Giovanni is an odd opera. Apart from the fact that it is the very devil to stage, every time I see it a different character seems to come to the fore. At Covent Garden three summers ago the supreme Donna Elvira of Joyce DiDonato dominated proceedings, whereas at Glyndebourne a year later the wonderful Kate Royal (who, as an unheralded understudy, had made such an impression there when taking over the role of Pamina) hardly registered in the role – and even Miah Persson, almost always a joy to watch, was little more than a bit player a year later. Donna Anna rarely does it for me as both she and her dippy fiancé Don Ottavio can be quite boring (why did Offenbach have to saddle his diva in Hoffmann with that, of all, roles?), but oftentimes either Giovanni or Leporello can end up in control of the stage, if not of the women.
However, in Co-Opera’s new Don Giovanni, which premiered this week at the John McIntosh Theatre at the London Oratory School, the character who held the stage for me was unexpected – the (so often) silly little peasant girl Zerlina, engaged to the unexciting Masetto and, you would think, no match for a lothario of Giovanni’s experience. But no one’s fool she, Robyn Allegra Parton was all attitude and on top of everything. I couldn’t work out why she was content to shack up with Masetto, mind, but then I’ve never understood the choices some people make.
Naturally, Giovanni was a thoroughly unpleasant piece of work, a vocally confident David Milner-Pearce also acting his socks off and an impressive presence. His lively foil as Leporello was Yair Polishook, whose principles were easily bought off with a few notes.
My point is that this was a Don Giovanni with attitude and a winning emphasis on stagecraft and acting. And that encapsulates what I think Co-Opera is all about. It was founded four years ago by soprano Kate Flowers and lighting designer Paul Need and developed from their realisation that the career path of young would-be opera singers today is hampered by the absence of the kind of small prestigious companies that used to be prevalent. Singers used to come straight from college to work alongside seasoned professionals in top-class productions in major venues, learning while earning. Such opportunities for emerging artists are rarer today. Kate and Paul gathered together professionals from every branch of the profession – personal friends, all of whom feel passionately that it is their duty to pass on their expertise to the next generation. Co-Opera, which relies on sponsorship and donations, is all about singers helping young singers, musicians helping young musicians. And stagecraft and the ability to combine vocal talent with compelling acting is key. So Zerlina’s emergence as a force to reckon with intrigued and delighted me.
In a 2012 realisation of Mozart’s trickiest work, Giovanni serenades Elvira’s maid accompanied by a backing track on his iPod – and the lower orders can be identified by the fact that they shop at Primark. The production, with more than one cast, will go on to play in Darlington, Bury St Edmunds, Wolverhampton, Croydon and Wellingborough – and a principle of the Co-Opera philosophy is that the young professionals are all paid for their performances.
Co-Opera’s second new production this week was Hansel and Gretel. Shuna Sendall combined the roles of Mother and the Witch with a top note of immense power and a comic touch that had the audience rolling in the aisles. Susanne Holmes and Lilo Evans as the children were in fine fettle and, as with the Mozart, the emphasis on production values and compelling drama was convincing.
A slimline orchestra is not ideal for either Mozart or the Humperdinck and there were moments in Hansel and Gretel when a richer, fatter, orchestral sound might have been appropriate. But this young company’s performances show how much latent talent there is on the young operatic circuit, just waiting for an opportunity to flourish.
Antony Craig started going to Covent Garden in 1962 and has probably been to more than 1000 performances at the Royal Opera House alone. He also finds time to sing in two choirs and is Production Editor of Gramophone.