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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Why I refuse to swallow the "clean eating" craze

Clean Eating – the Dirty Truth reveals the dodgy science behind the restrictive eating trend.

Some years ago, my sister fell seriously ill just as she was about to take her university finals. No one knew what was wrong, but we suspected – even if none of us dared to say the word aloud – that she had some form of cancer. How else to explain the vomiting and exhaustion, the pewter circles beneath her eyes? Many tests later, we learned the truth. She has coeliac disease. In the circumstances, this was wondrous news. All she had to do to be better was to give up gluten. In the years since, however, the sense of escape has gradually dimmed. What a pain it is. How lovely it would be for her to be able to scoff a bowl of proper pasta, to demolish a pizza along with everyone else.

It’s thanks to my sister that my tolerance for the swollen ranks of the gluten-free brigade is even lower than it might ordinarily be (which is to say, about as low as the Dead Sea, and then some). Coeliac disease is not a fad but a lifelong autoimmune disorder affecting 1 per cent of the population. It is exasperating to have to listen to non-sufferers spouting so much pseudo­science on the matter of gluten – lies and half-truths out of which some of them are making a great deal of money – though if there’s one thing that is more exasperating, it’s those same people refusing to explain themselves when confronted with expertise.

In Clean Eating – the Dirty Truth, (19 January, 9pm), a Horizon film presented by Dr Giles Yeo, a scientist at Cambridge University’s Metabolic Diseases Unit, the Hemsley sisters, Jasmine and Melissa, who eschew not just gluten but grains in their bestselling cookery books, were notable by their absence, having declined to appear. As Yeo tossed bones into a pan of simmering water, preparing to make their broth (“the ultimate superfood”), my blood was already boiling. What’s wrong, girls? Lost your nerve?

Yeo’s film, righteous and entertaining (if not, perhaps, sufficiently savage), took as its starting point the broad idea – promoted by the Hemsleys, among others – that while some foods aid “wellness”, others actively make us ill. The beauty of this open-ended approach was that it allowed him to show that clean eating is merely one end of the 21st-century food fad spectrum. At the other can be found people such as Robert O Young, who believes that alkaline foods can cure terminal diseases.

A one-time Mormon missionary, last year Young was convicted by an American court of practising medicine without a licence; as Yeo also revealed, in 2010, he charged a young British woman, Naima Mohamed, $77,000 for a stay at his “miracle” ranch in California not long before she died from breast cancer. The two ends of the spectrum are not unconnected. It was Young, for instance, who inspired the alkaline eating “revolution” of Natasha Corrett of the successful Honestly Healthy website. She, too, preferred not to appear in Yeo’s documentary.

The film built from sceptical jauntiness to what seemed to me to be a rather careful anger (perhaps the lawyers had been at it). One clean-eating star who did agree to meet Yeo was “Deliciously” Ella Woodward (now Mills), and with her help, he made a sweet potato stew, a photo of which he then uploaded to Instagram (social media and clean eating go together like linguine and crab).

But thereafter, he got out of the kitchen and on to a plane, eager to dismantle the diktats not only of Young, but also of his compatriots William Davis (the Hemsleys’ guru), a former cardiac doctor who believes that all human beings should give up wheat, and Colin Campbell, who advocates an entirely plant-based diet (Mills read Campbell’s bestseller The China Study before embarking on her own experiments).

Skilfully, Yeo queried the scientific evidence for these people’s claims and, in the case of Young, revealed his sweaty charlatanism. It was all rather, well, delicious, though I wanted more. Restricted by time and format, Yeo could not take the next step. What the rest of us need to do now is to call out the publishers and newspaper editors who enthusiastically peddle the diets of Ella and co, seemingly without recourse even to the most basic kind of fact-checking. 

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 19 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era