Dublin Theatre Festival 2016: Don Giovanni
Neither a borrower nor a lender
Don Giovanni. Lover and murderer. Damned to hell for his heartlessness and the debris of broken lives he left in his wake. Charmer, seducer, killer, his story shudders with the darkly comic and the thrill of violence, sex and death. Alas, while there’s a decent showing of light comedy, there’s precious few thrills to be found in Opera Theatre Company’s muddled production of Mozart’s classic opera buffa ‘Don Giovanni,’ in a new translation by Roddy Doyle. Rather, this is a production which, theatrically and dramatically, staggers to get on its feet and never stays long enough standing. A fundamental problem is that Doyle’s take on Lorenzo De Ponte’s libretto just doesn't work as well as it should. Doyle’s delicious, earthy language is present in places, and is unquestionably the best thing of this revised libretto, giving ‘Don Giovanni’ much of its charm and humour. But it’s just not there enough, with nothing of real substance to be found in its absence. Rhyming Zerlina with ballerina feels like a wink and a nod to the audience about the complexities of adapting, but it really just says Doyle didn’t go far enough. Indeed, plot, flow and language often seem to suffer rather than improve. In the end ‘Don Giovanni’ seems constantly unsure whether it’s an homage, a send up, a reimagining, or just simply poking fun at operatic conventions. Never going clearly in any one direction, it feels like it’s trying too hard to be everything for everyone and ends up more like a jack of all trades and a master of none. But Doyle is not the only one responsible here. Set design by Bruno Schwengl is also muddled, swinging from the incredibly evocative, seen in the wonderful mountain of skulls, to the incredibly disappointing. The screen littered with soft porn images is less successful than it might have been, and no amount of clever referencing of Northside pubs can salvage another design that looks basic in the extreme. Costume design is also lacklustre, with the aging Don looking more like the father of the bride than a fearsome lothario. Sinéad McKenna’s lighting design is also problematic at times, seeming to be almost in conflict with the set on occasion. Throughout, director Gavin Quinn concentrates on crafting the majority of scenes into a series of tableaus, like pictures observed in a gallery. With movement looking forcibly restricted, energy is often constricted, with moments of sexual energy or physical danger never being properly exploited. When Zerlina sings, standing still, and begs to be beaten, it's delivered without either humour or danger and a real opportunity is lost. Similarly with the bumping and grinding during the orgy like party scene at the end of Act One, which shows about as much sexual energy as an exercise session in the recreation room of a residential home for the elderly.
Thankfully, there’s Mozart’s exquisite music, played beautifully by the RTÉ Concert Orchestra under conductor Fergus Sheil, and sung to near perfection by an extraordinary cast. Jonathan May’s Commendatore, Alexander Sprague’s Don Ottavio, Daire Halpin’s Zerlina and Tara Erraught’s Donna Elvira are all wonderfully realised vocally. As is Brendan Collins’ Masetto and Máire Flavin’s Donna Anna, with Flavin’s rendition of ‘Non mi dir’ bordering on the sublime. John Molloy’s Leperello, both vocally and dramatically, is consistently strong throughout, having many of Doyle’s best lines. David Kempster as the aging lothario, Don Giovanni, employed his wonderful baritone to terrific effect, compensating for much of the Don's dramatic shortcomings.
During Act Two, when Kempster sings ‘Deh, Vieni alla finestra’ in the original Italian, there’s a palpable shift, a change in the air and everything becomes charged for a moment. Equally, there’s moments when Doyle writes of skulling pints or five fair haired women, four from Kildare and one with a scar, when a different kind of energy takes hold and it suddenly feels like something really interesting is going to happen. Alas, this production spends most of its time somewhere in between, in a no man's land where ‘Don Giovanni’ never quite takes off in a new direction, nor gives enough back to bring something new to the original.
‘Don Giovanni’ by Wolfgang Mozart, in a new translation by Roddy Doyle, produced by Opera Theatre Company runs at The Gaiety Theatre as part of The Dublin Theatre Festival until October 2nd