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.

NICOLA TYSON, COURTESY SADIE COLES HQ, LONDON
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Dave Haslam's history of venues makes nightclub walls talk

Life After Dark: a History of British Nightclubs and Music Venues reveals the ghosts of hedonism past.

“If these walls could talk . . .” The cliché owes its force to the notion that buildings are sentient – the suggestion that what happens inside them leaves a trace element. We feel the power of this idea in very different ways as we tour, say, Versailles or Dachau. It’s an idea very much at play in the best passages of this book.

There is a wonderful moment early on when the author tours the Dean Street Townhouse building in Soho, central London, along with a few young members of staff. The location is now an upscale hotel and restaurant but, as Haslam explains to them, back in 1978 the basement hosted Billy’s nightclub. Billy’s was run by Steve Strange and played host to the burgeoning New Romantic movement, with the likes of Boy George and Spandau Ballet all trooping down the steps off Meard Street. Later on, in 1982, the ultra-hip original Goth club the Batcave opened its doors on the top floor of the same building, and the elevator would have ferried the likes of Robert Smith of the Cure and Marc Almond skywards.

The twentysomething staff don’t seem altogether sure who these people are, but Haslam goes further as he tells them (no doubt to further head-scratching) that the building has in fact been a nightclub since the 1920s, when it was called the Gargoyle. The people who danced and partied there over the decades would have included Henri Matisse, Tallulah Bankhead, Fred Astaire and Noël Coward, he says.

It is a fantastic example of the deep vein of hedonism you sense thrumming behind the walls of many buildings in such areas as Soho, and Haslam extends this approach throughout the book as he travels across Britain, digging into the history of the likes of the Leadmill in Sheffield, the Barrowland Ballroom in Glasgow, the Cavern in Liverpool and the Free Trade Hall in Manchester, often tracing the origins of the venues back to Victorian times. It makes for a fascinating read, especially if you have ever stood in an old music venue and wondered (as I have often done) about the many previous generations whose fights, fashions, frugs and frocks have played out on the very boards you are treading.

Along the way, there are in-depth, illuminating interviews with figures as diverse as the novelist David Peace (on Goth clubs in Leeds) and James Barton, the co-founder of Cream (on the problems of running a nightclub in a city rife with gang warfare), as well as less familiar names such as Hyeonje Oh, the current owner of the Surakhan restaurant on Park Row in Bristol. Haslam explains to the amiable Mr Oh (in a wonderful scene reminiscent of that visit to Dean Street Townhouse) that, back in the mid-Eighties, the basement of his restaurant played host to the Dug Out club, where the careers of Massive Attack and Nellee Hooper began. None of this means very much to the restaurateur, until Haslam points out that Nellee Hooper has worked with Madonna. Mr Oh has heard of Madonna.

On occasion, the book slides into potted histories of the youth movements that came out of the nightclubs it is documenting. So we get a few pages on the emergence of punk rock, a few pages on the rise of acid house – nothing, frankly, that anyone with a passing interest in music or youth culture wouldn’t already know. I’m not sure we need to hear again that “one of the people energised by the Sex Pistols [at the Manchester Free Trade Hall] was Tony Wilson, who arranged for the band to premiere their ‘Anarchy in the UK’ single . . . on his Granada TV show”, except in a book aimed at the most general reader (which a book with the subtitle of this one surely is not).

Haslam is on much more interesting ground in the basement of a Korean restaurant that once throbbed to the heavy dub reggae whose influence shaped a generation of music performers and producers. Or when he describes the progress of the Coliseum in Harlesden, north-west London, from cinema in 1915, to fleapit punk rock venue in the Seventies – where, in March 1977, you could have seen the Clash (along with three other bands, and a couple of kung fu films) for £1.50 – to the Wetherspoons pub that stands on its site today. In these pages he asks you to imagine Daddy G of Massive Attack working the decks where the crates of produce are now stacked, to see Joe Strummer’s right leg pumping just inches from where office workers now sip discounted Sauvignon. In these pages, he makes the walls talk.

John Niven is the author of the novels “Kill Your Friends” (Windmill Books) and “The Sunshine Cruise Company” (William Heinemann)

Life After Dark: a History of British Nightclubs and Music Venues by Dave Haslam is published by Simon & Schuster (480pp, £20)

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war