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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"By now, there was no way back for me": the strange story of Bogdan Stashinsky

Serhii Plokhy’s The Man with the Poison Gun is a gripping, remarkable Cold War spy story.

On the morning of 12 August 1961, a few hours before the supreme leader of East Germany, Walter Ulbricht, announced the sealing of the border between East and West Berlin, a funeral took place for a four-month-old boy at the Rohrbeck Evangelical Cemetery in Dallgow. Numerous KGB agents and officers of the East German ministry of security were in attendance, but the boy’s parents were missing. Instead, Bogdan Stashinsky and Inge Pohl were preparing their imminent escape from Soviet-occupied territory and into the West. They had intended to flee the following day, but the funeral provided a moment of opportunity when their surveillance was relaxed. If they wanted to go, they had to go now.

“The KGB operatives present at the child’s funeral were puzzled by the parents’ absence,” a Soviet intelligence officer later wrote. “By the end of the day on 13 August 1961, it was clear that the Stashinskys had gone to the West. Everyone who knew what tasks the agent had carried out in Munich in 1957 and 1959, and what could happen if Stashinsky were to talk, was in shock.”

Those “tasks” were the state-sponsored assassinations of Lev Rebet and Stepan Bandera, two exiled leaders of the Ukrainian anti-communist movement who had been living in Munich. Stashinsky, one of the KGB’s top hitmen, and the focus of Serhii Plokhy’s gripping book, had been given the task of tracking and killing them with a custom-built gun that sprayed a lethal, yet undetectable poison. It was only after Stashinsky’s defection to the Central Intelligence Agency, and then to the West German security services, that the cause of Rebet and Bandera’s deaths was finally known.

For decades, the KGB denied any involvement in the assassinations, and the CIA has never been entirely sure about Stashinsky’s motives. Was he telling the truth when he confessed to being the assassin, or was he, as some still claim, a loyal agent, sent to spread disinformation and protect the true killer? Plokhy has now put to rest the many theories and speculations. With great clarity and compassion, and drawing from a trove of recently declassified files from CIA, KGB and Polish security archives, as well as interviews conducted with former heads of the South African police force, he chronicles one of the most curious espionage stories of the Cold War.

Stashinsky’s tale is worthy of John le Carré or Ian Fleming. Plokhy even reminds us that The Man With the Golden Gun, in which James Bond tries to assassinate his boss with a cyanide pistol after being brainwashed by the Soviets, was inspired by the Stashinsky story. But if spy novels zero in on a secret world – tradecraft, double agents, defections, and the moral fallout that comes from working in the shadows – Plokhy places this tale in the wider context of the Cold War and the relentless ideological battle between East and West.

The story of Stashinsky’s career as a triggerman for the KGB plays out against the backdrop of the fight for Ukrainian independence after the Second World War. He was a member of the underground resistance against the Soviet occupation, but was forced to become an informer for the secret police after his family was threatened. After he betrayed a resistance cell led by Ivan Laba, which had assassinated the communist author Yaroslav Halan, Stashinsky was ostracised by his family and was offered the choice of continuing his higher education, which he could no longer afford, or joining the secret police.

“It was [only] a proposal,” he said later, “but I had no alternative to accepting it and continuing to work for the NKVD. By now, there was no way back for me.” He received advanced training in Kyiv and Moscow for clandestine work in the West and became one of Moscow’s most prized assets. In 1957, after assassinating Rebet, he was awarded the
Order of the Red Banner, one of the oldest military decorations in the Soviet Union.

Plokhy’s book is about more than the dramas of undercover work; it is also an imaginative approach to the history of Cold War international relations. It is above all an affective tale about the relationship between individual autonomy and state power, and the crushing impact the police state had on populations living behind the Iron Curtain. Stashinsky isn’t someone of whom we should necessarily approve: he betrayed his comrades in the Ukrainian resistance, lied to his family about who he was and killed for a living. Yet we sympathise with him the more he, like so many others, turns into a defenceless pawn of the Communist Party high command, especially after he falls in love with his future wife, Inge.

One of the most insightful sections of Plokhy’s book converges on Stashinsky’s trial in West Germany in 1962 over the killings of Rebet and Bandera, and how he was given a reduced sentence because it was deemed that he had been an instrument of the Soviet state. The decision was influenced by German memories of collective brainwashing under the Third Reich. As one of the judges put it: “The accused was at the time in question a poor devil who acted automatically under pressure of commands and was misled and confused ideologically.”

What makes Plokhy’s book so alarmingly resonant today is how Russia still uses extrajudicial murder as a tool of foreign policy. In 2004 Viktor Yushchenko, the pro-Western future president of Ukraine, was poisoned with dioxin; two years later Aleksandr Litvinenko, the Russian secret service defector, unknowingly drank radioactive polonium at a hotel in London. The Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya survived a poisoning in 2004 after drinking tea given to her by an Aeroflot flight attendant (she was murdered two years later). The collapse of the Soviet Union did not bring the end of the Russian threat (Putin, remember, is ex-KGB). As le Carré noted in a speech in the summer of 1990, “The Russian Bear is sick, the Bear is bankrupt, the Bear is frightened of his past, his present and his future. But the Bear is still armed to the teeth and very, very proud.”

The Man with the Poison Gun: a Cold War Spy Story by Serhii Plokhy is published by Oneworld (365pp, £18.99)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge