The Soho Theatre is not exactly our favourite venue. It always seems a bit chaotic. We hate being made to wait until the last minute on the narrow stairs while exiting audiences from other shows push their way past us. Once we went to see comedian Seann Walsh and there was a couple in the audience who had accidently been allowed in to watch the first half of La Boehme. So it takes a major attraction for us to go, and the latest production from OperaUpClose seemed well worth the trip.
Like most of the productions so far, there is a twist to the story. Here Don Giovanni becomes ‘Johnny’, a city trader in the early noughties, and the gloomy bars and clubs of London make a good substitute for the ill-light gardens and arbours of the original. This is not the first time Don Giovanni has been updated, with the 2010 ENO production causing quite a stir, and a production by Opera Anywhere setting the entire action amongst employees in an investment bank.
Robin Norton Hale’s new version has also made some radical changes to the original libretto. Perhaps the most shocking change comes right at the beginning, where we are left in no doubt that Anna has been raped by Johnny, and rather than killing her father in a duel, he kills him in cold blood with a kitchen knife. In the original, the seduction does not succeed, and Anna cries for help and attempts to unmask her attacker. Whereas killing someone in a duel would not be considered sociopathic, killing a defenceless man at close quarters is a very different matter. Unfortunately, the ramifications of this beginning distort the rest of the story making it difficult to buy into. Anna becomes a victim instead of a feisty heroine, and complex psychological reasons need to be invented to explain why she appears to defend her rapist (whose identity has not been hidden). Not that the psychology is entirely spurious, but the rest of the libretto and the way the story unfolds is not sophisticated enough to support it. Given that this production retains much of the comedy of the original (described as a ‘dramma giocoso’) this makes for somewhat uneasy viewing. The role of Giovanni’s servant, now his ‘intern’ Alexander also becomes much more problematic as he has many more reasons to leave, and in modern times, greater means to do so, yet he doesn’t. A simple morality tale this certainly isn’t any more. The supernatural element is also minimised, with Johnny taking control of his own destiny in a rational and pre-meditated way rather than being punished by a higher power.
If we seem overly critical, it’s because we have very high expectations of OperaUpClose’s work, having seen four previous productions. Aside from our concerns about the story, there was plenty to enjoy in the performances and staging. Fleur Bray as Anna and Rosalind Coad as Elvira portray the anguish of the wronged women very well, without losing the beauty of Mozart’s music, and it is thrilling to feel the power of operatic singing in an intimate space as well as the subtlety. Emily Jane-Thomas and Marcin Gesla as the innocent Zerlina and Nathaniel make a lovely couple, particularly in the reconciliation scene. Tom Stoddart as Alexander has a beautiful and powerful voice and we almost believe that he cares about the women he is left to comfort. As Johnny, Marc Callaghan turns in a brilliant performance, perfectly capturing the swagger and arrogance of the character, whose boyish charm seems to suggest that he is perpetually trapped in adolescence. The staging was imaginative, particularly the conversion of the bar into a funeral home, and there were many comic moments. Ultimately though we felt that there were too many easy laughs and we weren’t sure about the use of modern music and spoken dialogue, which tended to intrude.
We have seen some very bold updates in previous productions, most notably using a Thai ‘ladyboy’ in Madam Butterfly, so we know that it can work. In this case we feel that by removing the religious elements, and replacing morality with legality, we lose some of the ambiguity which makes us care about the characters and really engage with the story.