The Oxford Alternative Orchestra’s production of Don Giovanni opened last Thursday at St. John’s Auditorium, restaging Mozart’s classic with an English translation by Amanda Holden. The company, featuring young professionals alongside university and conservatoire students, was very impressive, and all too tucked away within the college for its worth.
The front-of-house staff was friendly, providing modest but tasteful programs which, besides performance credits, gave audience members an overview of the opera’s plot as well as outlining the Oxford Alternative Orchestra’s ethos. While the St. John’s Auditorium is undoubtedly one of the orchestra’s more conventional venues, it nevertheless feels like a rare privilege to share the space with the orchestra, which is no less impressive for being reduced, demonstrating an incredible range, from the dramatic crescendos and resounding notes of Don Giovanni’s capture (which was both visually and audibly stunning) to the subtle, almost imperceptible accompaniment of the orchestra to a mandolin player on stage in the second Act. The Auditorium setting feels intimate without being cramped, and boasts excellent acoustics.
The set design for this production is exceptional – somehow simultaneously bold and simple but also detailed, with a window on the right hand side and a doorway on the left which were put to great use framing the action. No major set changes were required at any point as the set constructed by Christina Hill was incredibly versatile, allowing for subtle set changes between scenes which were not at all disruptive but rather elegantly incorporated into the choreography. Steps leading up to a central platform, flanked by two broken walls, made for a very streamlined set, leading the viewer’s eyes up and inwards, generating visually pleasing diagonals. These were further incorporated on a smaller scale by actors placing a foot on a rock or draping an arm across a wall, such that the cast appeared at all times to be framed in carefully arranged tableaus, recalling the nature of opera itself as artifice.
The English translation, though it may not appeal to purists wishing to see the opera performed in Italian, is really very good, and makes the performance more accessible to first time viewers by eliminating the need for subtitles. The language was beautiful but also very humorous, incorporating many satisfying rhymes. Leporello’s lines, sung by Chris Murphy, were especially well articulated, while Holly Brown, in the role of Donna Anna, really brought out the emotion in her lines with her impressively full singing and sympathetic acting.
The choreography was not only impressive in its penchant for picturesque tableaus, but stood out in a number of scenes where characters recall previous events, half acting them out as they are described. Thus, when Donna Anna tells Don Ottavio about her attempted rape, his consoling her with a tight embrace from behind simultaneously suggests the action that she is speaking of, and similarly, when Donna Anna sings about her father’s death, she moves to the area where the audience witnessed him die, crouching down in anguish in a way that recalls the Commendatore’s fall.
The production’s use of comedy, whilst not entirely to my liking, was nevertheless interesting in its response to the melodramatic nature of opera as a genre. Oftentimes I found the humour to be overdone, but this also makes sense as an artistic choice, since opera is inherently over-the-top, and more ‘stagey’ than other forms of drama. Take for example the scene when Don Giovanni proposes to Zerlina, turning to audience as though he’s in a cheesy infomercial when he says the words “make you my wife”. This style of humour, whilst gratuitously overdone, seems perfectly at home in an opera which has the audacity to include a piece of the composer’s own music in the dinner scene only to have Leporello comment that this music seems familiar. You can’t expect a libretto to feature Don Giovanni (in disguise) singing “[Don Giovanni] can’t be far away … you’ll find him soon with me”, and not expect a production to embrace the sheer irony of having him stand dramatically centre stage while he does so.
The performance featured many visual gags ranging from blatant to more subtle, as when Leporello hides behind the drums and mouths something inaudibly at the drummer, once again highlighting the intimacy of the orchestra’s setting. All the same, sometimes the acting might have benefitted from being toned down just a little. I can appreciate the self-aware humour of Don Ottavio getting carried away in his solo, making the background characters uncomfortable, but it does take away slightly from the music which is already splendid in and of itself, nor did Don Giovanni’s petulant characterisation sit quite right with me.
The overblown drama I have described above is nonetheless interspersed with moments of genuine emotion. In particular, this production seems to aim at a contrast between the overplayed male roles and the more serious portrayal of female roles. Perhaps in the 21st first century we should expect there to be some inherent difficulty in reconciling the opera’s melodramatic tone with its serious discussion on gender politics and sexual harassment . Whilst some scenes are undeniably voyeuristic, Mozart gives a surprisingly multi-faceted and sympathetic representation of women in Don Giovanni as individuals who are repeatedly let down even by their supposedly helpful male peers, from Donna Anna realising her danger long before Don Ottavio does, to Zerlina being slut-shamed by her husband after Don Giovanni attempts to rape her. In the World War 2 setting of this production, Don Ottavio becomes a dashing man-in-uniform oddly reminiscent of Captain America, whose delightfully two-dimensional portrayal stands alongside the overplayed roles of Don Giovanni and Leporello (who had a highly enjoyable overall dynamic) in contrast with the more sensitive portrayals of the three leading women.
While one may at first question why Don Giovanni needs to be topless for his final scene, the bloody and visceral nature of his damnation, where corpses come on stage to tear at his body, is highly impactful, building on the gritty horror-inspired rendition of the scene with the Commendatore’s ghost. Instead of a statue, this production makes a corpse of the departed Commendatore, positioned atop a pile of dead bodies played by the chorus, replete with eerie lighting and a wonderfully ominous sound design. Genuinely macabre, this is the first scene that seems to tie in the World War 2 setting, which is otherwise a little underdeveloped.
The turnout on Thursday was disappointingly low considering the number of seats available, although you wouldn’t know it from the sheer extent of applause at the end, with the audience clapping for so long that the cast, looking quite bemused, had to come on stage for a second bow just to appease them. Opera is not something that students are generally well acquainted with, but this translated performance – intimate, funny, and very reasonably priced with student tickets reduced to £8, is perfectly accessible for first-time viewers, and definitely a must-see for anyone curious about trying out opera.