Mozart, cubed

A bold but flawed production of Don Giovanni at Glyndebourne.

At the heart of Jonathan Kent's Don Giovanni is a giant cube. Textured with wilful trompe-l'oeil complexity, this is the revolving home of the action, its sides splitting seductively open to reveal all manner of vices and voyeuristic scenes of pleasure.

As symbols for Mozart's Don go it's a good one: coaxing us in while ever sliding away; pulling up the drawbridge just as we venture forth with our sympathy, leaving us battering our fists helplessly against the wall.

So far, so Jonathan Kent. There is a visual rhetoric to the director's productions that is distinctive if not always entirely sympathetic to its material. Allied here to the weaker Vienna version of Mozart's score (sacrificing Don Ottavio's "Il Mio Tesoro" and gaining a rather banal Act II duet for Zerlina and Masetto), his innovations lack the dramatic anchor they need, and it is the tragic trajectory of the Don himself that suffers. The climactic encounter with the Commendatore - here a half-buried corpse borrowed from a B movie - trades symbolism for fleshy realism, sacrificing allusion without gaining much by way of immediacy.

There's no denying the production's stylish visual quality, however. Relocated to the 1950s Italy of Fellini and Antonioni, the marble sturdiness of the architecture is undercut by Chirico-esque colonnades, all false perspective and exaggerated angles. The Don himself (Lucas Meacham) becomes a slick Mafioso, taking as much care over his tailoring as his seductions, while Zerlina (Marita Solberg) and Masetto (David Soar) are all flammable fabrics and candy-coloured vulgarity.

The cube itself proves a neat and ingeniously flexible device for Glyndebourne's narrow stage. Rotating from brocaded palazzo to graveyard, the scenes revealed become progressively more deconstructed, their angles more extreme. The result is an intricate ensemble tableau for "Venti Turbini" (characters spatially out of kilter with each other and their environment) and a finale that takes place on a striking gradient.

We open with sudden violence. Lights (including the ubiquitously glowing emergency exit signs) cut out as the opening chords descend. It's a bold gesture from Ticciati, and heralds a swift Overture, the sharply-pointed angst giving way to the frothiest of folly. This pace is sustained throughout the evening, and if it lends urgency to Kent's occasionally rather oblique visuals it does also refuse to linger, even where the score calls for it.

While there were issues of ensemble on opening night, the quality of the singing in this revival is excellent. An underused Toby Spence brings line and an unusual masculinity to Don Ottavio, supporting the precision of Shagimuratova's Donna Anna. Manifesting no discernable emotion, even at the heights of "Or sai chi l'onore" Shagimuratova's value lies in her musicality and voice, which make light of the role's vocal demands.

Showing their mettle in some of the swiftest, barely-sung recitative I've heard (though rivalled by Sherratt and Paterson in the recent ENO Don Giovanni) Meacham and Matthew Rose (Leporello) establish a natural partnership. Meacham has all the swagger of a serial seducer, matching it with a warmth of tone that only loses its focus in a rushed "Fin ch'han dal vino". Rose's height makes for an appealing visual contrast with the compact energy of Meacham, though his determined naturalism leaves much of the role's comedy rather under-projected.

While Miah Persson's Donna Elvira is deftly handled, it is Solberg's Zerlina who really delights, seducing her audience along with a helpless Masetto in the pouting sweetness of "Batti, batti" and "Vedrai carino". But even she couldn't make anything other than an intrusion out of Kent's S&M-themed Act II duet.

There is much that is elegant, apt and attractive about Kent's Don Giovanni, but little that seizes or compels. Mozart's opera is a work of violence and brutality, a mature study in the psychology (and psychopathy) of a rapist and instinctive murderer. The Don may be a monster, an accidental aggressor undone by his own charm, even - at a stretch - a man more sinned against than sinning, but he cannot be all at once. The weakness of Kent's production is a lack of emotional and dramatic specificity - a lack cruelly highlighted by the very precision and detail of his physical staging.

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Why a man soiling himself was one of my Olympic highlights

The joy of the Olympics is how easy it is to drop in and form strong opinions about the best way to win in any discipline.

There used to be a rumour that a newspaper (now defunct) had in its possession some compromising photographs of the wife of a beloved TV entertainer (now dead) romancing a chihuahua. I mention this because I think John Inverdale must have a similar hold over BBC Sport bosses. How else does he get such great gigs? At the Olympics, if he wasn’t being corrected by Andy Murray about the existence of women, he was having water droplets “accidentally” shaken over him by a sour-faced Steve Redgrave as he aired out his umbrella.

Then again, perhaps Inverdale’s continued employment is the salt in the caramel, or the Tabasco in a Bloody Mary: a small irritant, designed to give a kick to what would otherwise be bland niceness shading into enforced cheeriness. The rest of the Olympic presenters (grumpy Sir Steve possibly excepted) were a bunch of lambs: the sweet Helen Skelton, and the even sweeter Mark Foster and Rebecca Adlington, hosting the swimming; Matt Baker from The One Show and Beth Tweddle doing the gymnastics; that poor bloke they put on the beach so that leery passers-by and lecherous drunken couples could get into his shot. With 306 events over 19 days, I felt as if Clare Balding had moved into my spare room, we were spending so much time together. (The fact I didn’t want to smash my screen every time she came on is proof that she’s worth every penny of her £500,000 salary.)

The time zone difference could have made these Olympics a washout for British viewers, but the BBC used its red-button technology sensibly, and the presenters (mostly) coped with pretending they didn’t know what was going to happen while hosting the highlight reels. Someone at New Broadcasting House even grew a pair as the first week went on and stopped news programmes from intruding on the medal action. Earlier in the week, viewers had been forced to hop from BBC1 to BBC4 to BBC2 to follow their favourite events, the change sometimes occurring at an inopportune moment.

The joy of the Olympics is how easy it is to drop in and form strong opinions about the best way to win in any discipline. Unlike football, say, where true enjoyment requires memorising rafts of statistics and forming strong opinions about the transfer market, all Olympics coverage is designed for people who couldn’t tell one end of a derny bike from the other five minutes ago. Who really understands the rules of the omnium? Luckily, it turns out you don’t need to.

I thought I was going to hate the Olympics, which took place in the shadow of controversies over drug testing, the US swimmer Ryan Lochte’s faked robbery and Caster Semenya’s hormone levels. For all the guff about the international hand of friendship, the Games are a ruthless commercial enterprise, and one in which global inequalities are harshly self-evident. Are Americans just better athletes than the rest of the world? Clearly not. Money buys success. Could most of us, even given a trainer, dietician and acres of free time, qualify for any of these sports? No. Genetically, most of us are Morlocks compared to these people.

Nonetheless, all the natural (and artificial) advantages in the world can’t win you a gold medal if you sit on your sofa and eat Pringles all day. One of my favourite competitions was the gymnastics, where Simone Biles of the United States seemed to dominate effortlessly. Yes, being 4ft 8in clearly helps her – her shorter steps allow her to pack in more tumbles – but she’s still willing to do a somersault on a bar four inches wide. (The dangers of the discipline became clear when the French gymnast Samir Aït Saïd snapped his leg landing off the vault on the first day of qualifying rounds.) In the 50-kilometre race walk, Yohann Diniz pooed himself, collap­sed twice – and still finished in eighth place.

These are the Olympic moments I cherish. Usain Bolt makes it look too easy, which is boring. Without a narrative, sport is little more than a meaningless spectacle – a Michael Bay film or the latest Call of Duty. Luckily, Team GB seemed to heed the call for drama, delivering us a penalty shoot-out victory in the women’s hockey (and a team with a married couple in it); a comeback for Mo Farah after the allegations against his coach Alberto Salazar; and a surprising failure for Tom Daley in the 10-metre dive. We also got to see Laura Trott and Jason Kenny’s races through each other’s eyes.

In other words, bring on Tokyo 2020, so I can grouse about the money and the drugs and the inequality right up to the moment the first person shits themselves – and still finishes the race. Truly, human endeavour is a beautiful sight to behold. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser