Review: Don Giovanni

Oxford Alternative Orchestra's latest production is an intelligent take on the oft performed opera.

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Premiered in 1787 in Prague and in the Habsburg court in Vienna, Mozart’s Don Giovanni offered a biting social comedy. Breathing new life into a tired folktale of the legendary lecher, the comic opera is a whirlwind snapshot of the crumbling feudal order,and a satiric take on the foibles and violations of the feudal aristocracy. With an eye to a “reinvigorated” modern retelling, the Oxford Alternative Orchestra, headed by the ever-formidable Hannah Schneider, offersan accessible and thoroughly enjoyable performance.

We open at the scene of Don Giovanni’s attempted break-in and rape of Donna Anna, who murders her father. What follows is the attempted continuation of this ‘master lecher’s’ adventures, a series of attempted botched ‘seductions’ and run-ins with an abandoned former ‘conquest’. Narrowly avoiding former lovers and the odd lynching attempt, his luck runs out as he invites the shade of his victim the Commendatore to dinner. Unrepentant and unwilling to reform himself, he is torn to shreds and dragged into hell.

Dominating the Opera are the performances of Donna Anna (Holly Brown) and Donna Elvira (Beatrice Acland). The two female leads balance one another and complement the dual roles of the abandoned and psychologically tortured lover and the furious coloratura. Acland delivers a compelling portrait of the abandoned lover and tragic figure of Elvira. Heropening aria vowing vengeance to track down her lovercontrasts her performance shortly before the Don’s timely end. Over the course of the Opera her character is worn down and ruined with the pressures of honour, the cruel torments of the Don;she ends on her knees before him, pleading for both his love and reform. Brown is the picture of retribution and wrath;far from being the Don’s victim, she pursues him relentlessly throughout marshalling her lover and the whole village to bring him to justice.

The two–together with Zerlina and the interaction with their lovers following their run-ins with the don–reflect the insidiousness around sexual assault. Relationships threaten to be torn apart;the women are branded as mistaken, liars and whores, especially when challenged “by the word of a Gentleman”. Though the love arias of Ottavio (Dalla sua Pace/ on her own peace depends my own), charmingly sung by Alex Gebhard, the gaping distance between the two and the caveat “I must either disabuse her or avenge her” make apparent the limits of female agency and the relationship between Ottavio and Anna,especially her dependency on his believing her to secure her revenge.

As for the Don and his hapless servant, Charles Styles and Chris Murphy are an engaging and rakish duo. On the surface is the ‘charm’ of a Lothario,with the comic asides and improbable lines“I can smell woman”, “Such is my generous love, I have space for all women in my heart”. Styles is a commanding presence playing the burnt-out cad, defiant to the end. My personal favourite, though, isLeporello, with his endearing commentary on the state of affairs and his master. He is quite the sad figure, although claiming to be there for the money and occasionally pleading with his master to reform himself, he is in the end as much a victim and watered-own copy of his master.

I am quite fond of the traditional heavy bass of the Commendatore, and while the woollyand smooth baritone of Peter Steer did confuse me at first, it is a pleasing alternative.  Backed by the thundering trombones and minor chords of the final dialogue, he finishes the job splendidly while commanding a posse of demons to drag Don Giovanni to his grisly end.

It could be argued that the wartime set chafed with the opera somewhat, the modern element not being wholly emphasised, yet symbolically the set assists with the overall arc of this contemporary retelling. Where the Don Giovanni myth as said by Adorno depicts “the summit of a pass between two eras”, the triumph of bourgeoise morality works in contrast to hollow noble licentiousness. Instead this may be said to reflect the unchanged and corrupt state of moral affairs. Mozart set out to satirise and subvert, showing a changed order- nobles being brought to heel for their crimes and the ideal of equal love between mankind.

For a mainly student-based production, this is a talented and intelligent take on what is sometimes a stale staple of the repertoire.