Martin Constantine’s Don Giovanni, transposed to a modern fitness centre, at first seems a straightforward “men are bad” reading of Mozart’s dark comedy. The final scene of the opera indeed tells us that the Don was not a one-off – Ottavio puts on the sex addict’s discarded gold-trimmed gym robe and the other men gather around him at one side of the stage and the women huddle around gun-toting Donna Anna at the other.
However, this cynical #MeToo reading betrays the fact that throughout the opera the women are also far from perfect with Zerlina easily lured by the attraction of bling and Donna Elvira frankly desperate for “hubbie” to come back to her. With some nifty playing with her wedding ring (on, off, on and then finally off) Donna Elvira finally decides she has had enough and off comes the ring. Just as he cannot shake off Donna Elvira the Don cannot get his wedding ring off. I could not see whether he had managed to remove it post interval as he sat on stage seemingly studying his hands. Was this a moment of self-reflection?
The character assassination of the men needs to be done through their gestures and behaviour rather than what they sing. For example, the men in the fitness gum ignore the Don’s dragging women into a curtained cubicle for sex and when Zerlina screams for help in the party the men seem reluctant to do anything about it. We then have that concluding scene. This interpretation is most severe on Ottavio as his promises to avenge Donna Anna are shown to be completely cynical and manipulative. It is not quite so clear whether Masetto is also being portrayed as a sexist (although one who is resentful of the aristocracy) and similarly Leporello’s conversion to join the goodies is also questioned.
Anyway, the roles are all taken with great vigour and conviction as the plot moves along at a cracking pace, helped with a pretty straightforward set from Tim Holt, a gym locker room with curtain areas that opens up to become the Don’s palace. This scene was more like a pool romp at one of the clubbing scene’s big international circuit parties, a concept that would work just as well. Holt’s costumes became a little odd at this stage with the Don (and others) sporting gold shorts although the idea of emoji masks was inspired.
In the title role Ivan Ludlow had the look and physique to carry off the idea that this was a modern fitness obsessed man, but who had an underling (Leporello) to beat (literally) in every sport, including boxing, squash and fencing. This also brought out the character’s enjoyment of violence when he starts to disembowel the Commendatore having stabbed him with a broken off squash racket. Cue audience members to look away. He sings the role with great presence and interpretation, possibly lacking in the beauty of the seduction arias.
Leporello, from the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama graduate, south Walian Emyr Wyn Jones, is perfect in the role, giving a performance both vocally and dramatically polished and convincing, secure of voice and comfortable with the comedy and pathos of the role. It was in a Martin Constantine directed Falstaff that Emyr concluded his performance studies at the Royal Welsh (after a string of other notable student performances).
American soprano Paula Sides was delightful singing the mostly one-dimensional role as Donna Anna, pivotal to the righteous pursuit of the Don but in this portrayal also unwilling to genuinely believe her Ottavio, refusing to surrender the pistol she has acquired – just because the struggle hasn’t necessary concluded which is justified when her ideal man adopts that robe.
Emry Wyn Jones and Ivan Ludlow
Matthew Durkan and Llio Evans
Claire Egan and Paula Sides
The most nuanced performance comes from Claire Egan as the jilted Donna Elvira. She knows the Don is a heartless cad but rather than wanting vengeance she just wants him back. The Cardiff International Academy of Voice graduate (she trained under Dennis O’Neill) sings the classic hate to love him aria but ultimately accepts she isn’t going to get him and joins the pack.
We have an interesting take and charmingly sung Zerlina from Llio Evans. Yes, the easily impressed “peasant” but not too unworldly, working as a masseuse in the men’s fitness centre. She is also a Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama and Wales International Academy of Voice graduate. Her “beat me” aria sits a little uncomfortably in a 21st century performance but before the woke brigade start protesting she is actually just manipulating Masetto and I have to say, I am not sure why he forgives her quite so easily.
I was not totally convinced by William Morgan’s Don Ottavio but much of that was due to the directing and characterisation but there was less difficulty with Matthew Durkan’s appealing Masetto. He is another exemplary graduate of the Wales International Academy of Voice. Fresh from his role as Henry VIII in Longborough’s Anna Bolena, Lukas Jakobski, sang a strong Commendatore.
Was there enough delineation between the classes which is another key facet of this work? Possibly not.
In the pit conductor Thomas Blunt brought fine playing of the delicious score and a genuinely fiery climax, quite an achievement given the limits of the Longborough stage and facilities. This was helped in no small part by the atmospheric lighting design by Tim Mitchell.
Main image: Ivan Ludlow and Paula Sides
Images: Matthew Williams-Ellis.