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.

Alexandra Coghlan is the New Statesman's classical music critic.

Show Hide image

In Kid Gloves, Knausgaardian style provides a route through a writer's grief

Adam Mars-Jones has created a clever, stoical and cool account of caring for a dying father.

In bookish circles, it’s pretty commonplace these days to remark on the way in which the spirit of the Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard hangs over our literary culture – noxious gas or enlivening blast of ­oxygen, depending on your point of view. Nor would I be the first critic to point out the similarities between his prolixity and that of the British novelist Adam Mars-Jones. Reviewing Knausgaard’s My Struggle in the New Yorker, James Wood likened its style – “hundreds of pages of autopsied minutiae” – to that of Mars-Jones’s novels Pilcrow and Cedilla, the first two volumes in a thus far unfinished project in “micro-realism”. But originality be damned: I’m going to say it anyway. As I read Mars-Jones’s new memoir, Kid Gloves: a Voyage Round My Father, it was Knausgaard I thought of repeatedly. Mostly, this was because I simply couldn’t believe I was so fascinated by a book that was at times so very boring.

Mars-Jones is by far the more elegant writer of the two. He is also feline where Knausgaard is only wide-eyed. Nevertheless, they clamber (slowly and with many pauses to consider the view) over comparable territory. What, after all, is Knausgaard’s account of the effect of milk on a bowl of ­cereal compared to Mars-Jones’s disquisition on the subject of orange juice? The Norwegian’s reverie is the longer of the two but it is Mars-Jones who is the more triumphantly banal. “Shopping on a Monday I saw a wide variety of types of orange juice on display in a supermarket and bought large quantities,” he writes early on. I love that “Monday” – it’s so precise. But it also prompts the question: which supermarket, exactly, was he in? Was it the same “large branch of Sainsbury’s” where, three paragraphs later, we find him picking up a carton of buttermilk?

You will think that I am taking the piss. I’m not – or not entirely. For all its pedantic weirdness, Mars-Jones’s memoir, clotted and rich and true, does its job rather well. As the subtitle suggests, at its heart is his tricky relationship with Sir William Mars-Jones, the high court judge who died in 1999. A clever man but also a difficult one (having made a bit of a leap in terms of education and social class, he clung rather ardently to certain comforting reflexes), he is brought to life vividly by his son, who often simply replays their most frustrating conversations. In doing so, Mars-Jones, Jr also tells us something of himself. He comes over as a bit silly and fastidious but also as clever, stoical, kindly and, above all, ever cool in the face of provocation. In this light, his Pooterish digressions are just another symptom of his unnervingly temperate personality, his clinical even-handedness.

His memoir is oddly artless, the stories tumbling out, one after another, like washing pulled from a machine. An account of his father’s better-known cases (he prosecuted in the Moors murders trial) shades into a detour on soup-making; an analysis of Sir William’s retirement – he gravitated, his son writes, towards the state of “inanition” – takes us, almost slyly, to an explanation of why Mars-Jones tenderly associates Badedas with shingles (a friend who had yet to discover he had Aids, of which shingles can be a symptom, bathed in it).

The reader waits, and waits, for the big scene, for the moment when Mars-Jones tells his father, a regular kind of homophobe, that he is gay. But in a strange way (it does arrive eventually) this is beside the point. From the outset, we know that it was Adam, not his brothers, who looked after his widowed father in his last days, sharing his flat in Gray’s Inn Square; so we know already that an accommodation has been reached, however horrifying Pater’s reaction was at the time. (Mars-Jones, Sr suggested that his son could not possibly be gay because, as a boy, he played with himself during a film starring Jacqueline Bisset; more cruelly, he delegated his clerk to research the possibilities of testosterone treatment for his son.) In any case, there is a universality here: for which of us, gay or not, hasn’t trembled on hearing our mother say, down the line from home, the dread phrase “Dad would like a word”?

After his father’s death, Mars-Jones attempts to continue to live in his parents’ home, insisting that the inn will have to evict him if it wants him gone. When it does turf him out, he writes a piece for the Times in which he denounces its members – in ­effect, his parents’ friends and neighbours. Is this just the response of a more than usually broke freelance writer? Or is it that of a man in deep grief?

Perhaps it’s both. Mars-Jones tells us quite a bit about his parlous finances but relatively little of his feelings of abandonment. He was closer to his mother. It is more than 15 years since his father died. And yet, here it is, his book. Those Knausgaardian impulses of his – perhaps they’re just displacement for his loss, word-fill for a void so unfathomably big that it still takes him by surprise, even now. 

Kid Gloves: a Voyage Round My Father is available now from Particular Books (£16.99)

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism