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.

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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis