Confession time… I’ve seen Kasper Holten’s Royal Opera House (ROH) production of Don Giovanni before, but it wasn’t live at the opera house. In 2014, it was broadcast live to UK cinemas. I recall how fascinating the production was. Creative video designs and light installations lit up the stage while the set, itself, was plain white and, pretty much, empty. All became three dimensional when you saw Es Devlin’s all-white Escher-style mansion with its many endless stairs and rotating platforms. One could only guess that Holten had set his opera in a non-specific time or era. It’s a mix between the modern, with the Don’s fur jacket, and the Romantic period of Mozart’s (18th century) time through Anja Vang Kragh’s distinctively rich costumes.

Chen Reiss and Mariusz Kwiecien. Photo by Bill Cooper.

Seeing all of this digital art and technological brilliance through high definition Dolby surround sound was quite an immersive experience. Back then, some critics noted how unique Holten’s ending was while others simply didn’t agree with it and argued how misaligned it was with Mozart’s opera. They’d say, the Commendatore is meant to take the Don down to the depths of hell, yet Holten doesn’t take the Don away. Instead, he rid the Don of all his worldly pleasures and leaves him with nothing he becomes a vulnerable man staring into the empty abyss. Is there a grand afterthought the ex-opera director had in mind for us, the audience? If so, I’m not sure many got it.

Moving forward four years later, Mariusz Kwiecien has returned to the ROH to reprise his role as the lustful and immoral Don. For those unfamiliar with Don Giovanni, all you need to know is that the Don loves all types of women: old, young, fat and thin, poor and rich. He is willing to kill in order to fulfil his thirst of women. The audience can depend on his manservant, Leporello to explain the intricacies of Giovanni’s game: his number of conquests (and area codes) through the aria, ‘Madamina, il catalogo e questo’. Mozart used the same music for his overture and Luke Halls’s meticulous video designs illustrate the Don’s insatiable desire for women all over Europe. On this occasion, the deed is sung exquisitely by bass-baritone Ildebrando D’Arcangelo while his caricature of Leporello is justifiably weedy, comic and silly. Kwiecien embraces the role of the lecherous tyrant and doesn’t fall short of bravado. The handsome Polish baritone certainly has a flair and charm on the electric stage. Kwiecien and D’Arcangelo effortlessly and succinctly demonstrate their characters’ discernable polarity to one another: one is the tortured while the other is the torturer.

Mariusz Kwiecien as Don Giovanni. Photo by Bill Cooper

That said, the Don’s torturer is the ghost of the man he murdered, the Commendatore. He is the father of the women (Donna Anna) he allegedly raped, or in Kasper’s production the fiancée who fell for the charms of the Don. Celebrating 40 years with the ROH is Sir Willard W. White who took no prisoners with his frightening and ghostly depiction of a vengeful father. It was the final act, many had anticipated and were looking forward to the most, that White made an impactful and terrifying scene as he sung the famous aria, ‘Don Giovanni! A cenar teco m’invitasti.’

Rachel Willis-Sørensen’s voice was stirring and first-rate on the first night. In fact, she was a stellar match for the role of Donna Anna, which isn’t an easy voice to sing. Her character is confusing too: she’s infatuated with the Don, yet remorseful over the death of her father. Hrachuhi Bassenz played Donna Elvira (Mozart’s jilted lover) with energy and zeal. Her voice was lush and consistently strong throughout the evening. Pavol Breslik performed as a likable Don Ottavio and his touching performance of ‘Il Mio Tesoro’ got him a large round of the applause from the auditorium. The simple, naive and curious Zerlina was performed by Chen Reiss, which was sweet enough, yet her rendition of ‘Batti, batti o bel Masetto’ was reined back a little and not as seductive as other performances I’ve seen. Anatoli Sivko, on the other hand, downplayed, the role of Masetto (Zerlina’s husband), but was sufficient as casting goes. Speaking generally, Masetto’s character isn’t popular as far as the story is concerned, after all.

Last but not least, the conductor Marc Minkowski and the ROH orchestra deserve the highest reward for executing Mozart’s music meticulously and with aplomb. Without them, Mozart doesn’t exist. Yet, his spirit was unquestionably present on the night I saw this production. (Yes, for three entire hours!) May his spirit live on!

(Not in order) Mariusz Kwiecien, Ildebrando D’Arcangelo, Rachel Willis Sorensen, Pavol Breslik, Hrachuhi Bassenz, Chen Reiss, Anatoli Sivko: Photo by Bill Cooper

Don Giovanni is now showing at the Royal Opera House until 17 July. Tickets available online here.

(I purchased my ticket to review the opera.)

(Header image: Hrachuhi Bassenz and Mariusz Kwiecien. Photo by Bill Cooper.)