Music: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Director: Sophie Gilpin
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
Whoever scheduled this faithful adaption of Mozart’s Don Giovanni at the Pleasance Theatre must have had incredible foresight, as this revival has come at a time when revelations of female sexual abuse at the hands of men in positions of power has dominated the news. Central to Mozart’s tale is a protagonist who is sometimes admired by his libidinous pursuit of women, but in Sophie Gilpin’s new production, Don Giovanni is a vicious predator preying on vulnerable young women.
The opera opens with a masked Don Giovanni molesting Donna Anna who manages to fight him off when her father intervenes but is killed in the ensuing fracas. Determined to discover her assailant, Donna Anna joins forces with her fiancé Don Ottavio and Donna Elvira who has been cast aside by Don Giovanni and wants revenge. As his latest exploits interrupt a local wedding, the forces begin to gather and a final reckoning approaches.
It’s a brave move to stage a full-length opera sung in Italian with English subtitles and only four musicians in a fringe venue, but Sophie Gilpin’s Head First company manages to bring out the intimate setting of the story while offering a more damning portrait of the leading man than often seen. Earlier this year, Patrick Marber’s comedy play starring David Tennant made the character loveably despicable but ensured all his affairs were fully consensual, while Gilpin’s approach is to show his attentions as unwelcome sexual assaults on at least two the women he encounters, ensuring Matthew Sprange’s Don Giovanni has no redeeming features.
Yet, the show is perhaps too careful about the ways these attacks are presented, quelling the range of vehement emotions that should course through Mozart’s music. It is a story that mixes passion, sex and violence that should build to a dramatic conclusion, and while the singing is full of variation, those extremes of feeling are rather muted. And while Act One sets up the story nicely, the pace slackens considerably in Act Two where a sense of urgency and time running against Don Giovanni is lacking.
Head First’s stated aim is to reimagine this story from the perspective of the women which it largely achieves in three strong central performances from Caroline Modiba as Donna Anna, Elizabeth Roberts as Donna Elvira and Sian Cameron as Zerlina. Modiba, in particular, has an extraordinary operatic voice, revealing the anger and grief at her father’s death along with her love for Don Ottavio and shame at Don Giovanni’s attempted violation. But while she asks her lover for help, she is integral to the revenge plot against her attacker and Modiba clearly shows Donna Anna making her own decisive choices.
Roberts’ Donna Elvira has a more complex relationship with the man she both loves and hates, having to flip constantly between humiliation and a noble desire to save his soul. Gamely struggling with illness and unable to sing at full strength, Roberts conveyed the duality of Donna Elvira’s heart while retaining a credible moral purity. Likewise, Sian Cameron’s feisty bride Zerlina refused to be controlled by her new husband Masetto (Ian Beadle) or by Don Giovanni, and, while flattered by the attention of the latter, retained her own power to decide who she wanted.
Although Sprange sings well, and towards the end of the production discovers some of Don Giovanni’s cruelty, he never quite fimds the mix of charisma and swaggering entitlement that should make him so objectionable. Sprange doesn’t quite convince as the seducer of a thousand women in Spain alone, and his brutality is underplayed – which is particularly problematic for a production deliberately emphasising his physical and unwanted attacks on the women he meets.
At nearly three hours, Head First’s production begins to drag. This version of Don Giovanni has plenty of good ideas but needs a little more power to drive the darker elements of the plot and to really sharpen those rather timely parallels with the scores of women adding their voice to the #MeToo campaign.
Runs until 3 November 2017 | Image: Head First Productions