The weather does not seem too kind to outdoor operas in August and while we had a cool but lovely evening at the exquisite gardens of Nevill Holt for the first night of their sparky and energetic Don Giovanni black clouds threaten some of the further performances.
Obviously this is bad news for those seated outdoors (about half the audience possibly) and the experience of enjoying the rural vistas and well preened gardens but also the fact that one of the theatrical themes of the show is fire, complete with fire eater, and in the pouring rain I am not sure how that would work.
Such is the youthful energy of the cast who often bound around the grassy mound with slopes at three sides that forms the “stage” in front of a covered open air concert style stage for the orchestra, the rain will not put them off but whether the flames stay light is another matter. I hope the rain stays off or, if it doesn’t, that the flames are not extinguished as with it would be one of the ideas of director Jack Furness in this staging.
The director makes use of the fact the show has to be staged outdoors rather than in the new theatre with a traditional rural and pagan theme of corn dollies, straw bear and straw men costumes, maypole dancers and a lot of haybales. This links in with associated fire element of the show we have a fire eater, burning torches, and (out of my sightline) the Don is led off by the peasants at the finale with a flaming staff and ends up burning like the infamous wicker man.
The theme of the women and primarily peasant women taking their revenge (in a way more than the Commendatore) was also manifest in the inclusion of the usually deleted scene of Zerlina tying up Leporello and singing a not particularly memorable revenge aria. Similarly, the women all come and a stab at the Don and cut off chunks of his wig.
The arrival of the Don and Leporello on a golf buggy for the start of the second half was part of a lot of jolly japes added to the production and while it reminds us this is an opera buffa it also added to a slight feeling of this very young looking Don having a bit of a jolly caper with a dressing up box and detracted at times from the seriousness and darkness of a rape opera, murder, social divisions and human hypocrisy, the fragile position of women and inequality at the naissance of the Enlightenment period.
The young cast was indeed enthusiastic and gave powerful singing performances and I now long to hear them all without being microphoned. After a little while you do forget the voices are amplified although at times I could not work out where the singers were in relation to the sound. For example, at the end of the opera one singer was off on the right of the mound, halfway down the slope, so I could not see here but her voice, like the others, could have been anywhere and then she appeared. Similarly, when Zerlina cries out for help when about to be raped it is no wonder the party goers cannot find her as it was impossible to follow her voice.
The singers have much to do with their unusual entrances and exits, sometimes out of the theatre building and across the grass to ascend the mound, other times from trap doors from the mound, and sometimes carted on or off the haywain as our peasants are usefully employed in the theatrical requirements. Musically it is also a challenge but no problem for conductor Finnegan Downie Dear and the first Nevill Holt outing for the Shadwell Ensemble as he balances the musicians on stage with the singers behind him and all over and on and off that mound.
Encapsulating the young energy and playfulness of the production was the impressive singer Seán Boylan whose Don Giovanni is not the mature, frankly revolting, rapist/seducer but more a young chap having a whale of the time chasing anything in a skirt. He has a beautiful voice and, as stated and with the other singers, I look forward to hearing it without electronic boosting.
The production allows Anna Patalong to concentrate and master the vocal challenges of Donna Anna while Aoife Miskelly delights with Mozart’s luscious and thrilling arias for Donna Elvira. The two singers give attention-grabbing performances of their show stopping Mozart arias. We are given clear and refined singing of Don Ottavio from Joshua Owen Mills who, while having to appear in a woman’s costume for the party scene, plays Don Ottavio as the upright, passionate but controlled gentleman. Nicholas Crawley was impressive throughout as Leporello both vocally and dramatically giving a nuanced performance.
With such emphasis on the peasants and the actual marriage, here of rural peasants rather than necessarily townsfolk we needed and received a strong pairing from Benedict Nelson as Masetto, who early in the opera tells us that the lower orders know exactly what to expect from the men of the higher orders and also from the women who ‘fall’ for it, and Olivia Warburton now conventional playing of Zerlina as a not so innocent participant. Dingle Yandell is very heavily amplified and distorted that it is hard to really judge his Commendatore but he certainly sounded and looked the part in this production.
The chorus and actors not only have much to do “on stage” but also entertain off on the edge of our vision as they perform rural dances and play around as young people in the space between the mound and the theatre.
A fun, jaunty and interesting take on Don Giovanni with much to commend these singers with careers to closely follow and some glistening musicianship.
Nevill Holt Opera is very fairly priced with tickets starting from just £35 and free for under-18s. There are three seating zones one for picnic blankets, open air seating and a covered grandstand.
Further performances August 21st, 22nd, 24th and 25th August
Main image: Seán Boylan and Aoife Miskelly
Images by Lloyd Winters