Don Giovanni holds a mirror up to society after the year of the “selfie”

History may be written by the victors but Holten gives literature’s greatest loser, condemned again and again to hellfire, the opportunity to tell his tale.


Image: ROH/Bill Cooper

Don Giovanni
Royal Opera House, London WC2

Don Juan or Don Giovanni, Jack Tanner or Don Jon: the legendary seducer and libertine remains a powerful psychological cipher, whether reinvented by Molière and Patrick Marber, Pushkin or the Pet Shop Boys. Kasper Holten’s new production for the Royal Opera House attempts a bold re-write of the myth, holding a mirror up to a society in which “selfie” was declared the 2013 Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year.

The curtain rises on Es Devlin’s clean, classical designs. But just as Mozart’s music sets aside solemnity for wriggling quavers, so this white facade starts to boil with life. Cleverly conjured by Luke Halls’s video projections, invisible quills scrawl graffiti, covering the blank walls with Leporello’s list of his master’s conquests. It’s the start of a long evening of visual trickery that makes singers disappear even as you watch them and transforms windows into whirling vortexes and an ordinary house into an Escher illusion.

Reality, it seems, is subjective. A telltale ink blot spreading outwards from the centre of Donna Anna’s dress and the delicate patterns on Donna Elvira’s robes reveal themselves as the quill-strokes of the opening scene – and it becomes clear that this is Don Giovanni rewritten by the Don. History may be written by the victors but Holten gives literature’s greatest loser, condemned again and again to hellfire, the opportunity to tell his tale – and what a tale it is.

Far from being a rapist and violator, Giovanni, here played by Mariusz Kwiecien, is the victim of hypocritical women, who lead him on even as they cry abuse. Donna Anna clings desperately to a departing Giovanni before launching into a version of “Fuggi, crudele, fuggi” that is more reproach than accusation. Later, she slips out, even as Ottavio sings of his love in “Dalla sua pace”, for another encounter with the Don. Zerlina, too, discovered in a compromising embrace on her wedding day, tears at her own clothes – creating the fiction of a violation where none occurred.

There has been much debate about rape recently. To give control of a rape narrative to a male aggressor risks making a mockery of the current artistic preoccupation with voicing the unvoiced. Does Giovanni’s side of the story need telling? Does he deserve his time in the operatic witness stand? Which side the production is on, morally, depends on the ending.

Fortunately, Holten triumphs here. In a sleight of hand more striking than the visual pyrotechnics, he suddenly banishes them all. Hell is not death, or a descent into baroque demons and flames, but simply the end of illusion. Thrust back into a solitary reality, with the house lights rising, Giovanni can only reach desperately out to the audience in the hope that they might indulge him in one final chapter. Purists will object to the musical cuts to this last scene but the truncated resolution is the only possible ending for an opera that is all about the Don, in which other characters are mere projections and fantasies.

Conceptually this is as interesting a Don Giovanni as we’ve seen in years. In execution, however, there are some issues. The visuals offer spectacle where psychological intimacy would be more appropriate. Even such powerful singing actors as Kwiecien and Véronique Gens, who plays Elvira, get lost among it all. Humour is drained from the drama by a quirky, strangely jazzy fortepiano continuo – a leaden musical gag that misses the punchline each time – while in scenes begging for laughter, Holten seems to have gone out of his way to avoid it.

The speed from Nicola Luisotti’s pit is uneven, too often rushing forwards and treading moments of delicacy and humour underfoot. Zerlina’s charmingly manipulative “Batti, batti” is a casualty, as is the Don’s serenade. The casting also yields problems, with Malin Byström struggling to contain her voice in the repressed frame of Donna Anna and the tenor Antonio Poli making heavy weather of her lover Don Ottavio. But through it all, Kwiecien’s charisma burns hell-hot. The Polish baritone carries a tricky concept by sheer force of personality, aided by the smoothest of vocal seductions.

After making his Royal Opera House debut with a staging of Eugene Onegin that took a beating from critics, Holten would have been forgiven for playing it safe with his second production. Yet Don Giovanni is a defiant, double-or-nothing bet: a flawed show but more interesting, thought-provoking and appealing than anything I have seen from this company in a long time.

“Don Giovanni” runs until 24 February

This article first appeared in the 13 February 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Can we talk about climate change now?

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Would the BBC's Nazi drama SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago?

This alternate history is freighted with meaning now we're facing the wurst-case scenario. 

Would SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago? Though the clever-after-the-fact Nostradamus types out there might disagree, I can’t believe that it would. When it comes to the Second World War, after all, the present has helpfully stepped in where memory is just beginning to leave off. The EU, in the process of fragmenting, is now more than ever powerless to act in the matter of rogue states, even among its own membership. In case you hadn’t noticed, Hungary, for instance, is already operating as a kind of proto-fascist state, led by Viktor Orbán, a man whom Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, jokingly likes to call “the dictator” – and where it goes, doubtless others will soon follow.

The series (Sundays, 9pm), adapted from Len Deighton’s novel, is set in 1941 in a Britain under Nazi occupation; Winston Churchill has been executed and the resistance is struggling to hold on to its last strongholds in the countryside. Sam Riley plays Douglas Archer, a detective at Scotland Yard, now under the control of the SS, and a character who appears in almost every scene. Riley has, for an actor, a somewhat unexpressive face, beautiful but unreadable. Here, however, his downturned mouth and impassive cheekbones are perfect: Archer, after all, operates (by which I mean, barely operates) in a world in which no one wants to give their true feelings away, whether to their landlady, their lover, or their boss, newly arrived from Himmler’s office and as Protestant as all hell (he hasn’t used the word “degenerate” yet, but he will, he will).

Archer is, of course, an ambiguous figure, neither (at present) a member of the resistance nor (we gather) a fully committed collaborator. He is – or so he tells himself – merely doing his job, biding his time until those braver or more foolhardy do something to restore the old order. Widowed, he has a small boy to bring up. Yet how long he can inhabit this dubious middle ground remains to be seen. Oskar Huth (Lars Eidinger), the new boss, is keen to finish off the resistance; the resistance, in turn, is determined to persuade Archer to join its cause.

It’s hard to find fault with the series; for the next month, I am going to look forward to Sunday nights mightily. I would, I suppose, have hoped for a slightly more charismatic actress than Kate Bosworth to play Barbara Barga, the American journalist who may or may not be involved with the British resistance. But everything else seems pretty perfect to me. London looks suitably dirty and its inhabitants’ meals suitably exiguous. Happiness is an extra egg for tea, smoking is practically a profession, and
the likes of Archer wear thick, white vests.

Swastikas adorn everything from the Palace of Westminster to Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace is half ruined, a memorial to what the Germans regard as Churchill’s folly, and the CGI is good enough for the sight of all these things to induce your heart to ache briefly. Nazi brutality is depicted here as almost quotidian – and doubtless it once was to some. Huth’s determination to have four new telephone lines installed in his office within the hour is at one end of this horrible ordinariness. At the other is the box in which Archer’s mutinous secretary Sylvia (Maeve Dermody) furiously stubs out her fag, full to the brim with yellow stars.

When I first heard about The Kettering Incident (Tuesdays, 12.20am; repeated Wednesdays, 10pm) I thought someone must have found out about that thing that happened one time I was driving north on the M1 with a more-than-usually terrible hangover. Turns out it’s a new Australian drama, which comes to us on Sky Atlantic. Anna (Elizabeth Debicki), a doctor working in London, pitches up back in Tasmania many years after her teenage friend Gillian disappeared into its Kettering forest, having seen a load of mysterious bright lights. Was Gillian abducted by aliens or was she, as some local people believe, murdered by Anna? To be honest, she could be working as a roadie for Kylie, for all I care. This ponderous, derivative show is what happens when a writer sacrifices character on the altar of plot. The more the plot thickens, the more jaw-achingly tedious it becomes.

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 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit