Mozart’s Don Giovanni has been retold, reimagined and reinterpreted more than perhaps any other opera. It’s comic qualities make it ripe for reinvention. Even judged by the standard of most operatic plots, the story of Don Giovanni, that infamous seducer of women who remains unrepentant to the last, seems excessive.
So the irony is that Dominic Gray’s production at Heaven, a gay club and music venue beneath the railway arches at Charing Cross, arose because the story seemed not beyond the realms of possibility to the producer, Richard Crichton. Upon hearing the famous catalogue aria in which the Don’s conquests are listed – ‘in Italy, six hundred and forty; in Germany, two hundred and thirty-one’ – he recalled a man who had had far more male lovers, and so the idea of staging a gay version came about.
The revision, however, extends far beyond inverting the gender of every character other than the Don (or just Don in this production). The fundamental class tensions remain in this relocation of the action to 1980s Britain, with Alan (Donna Anna in the original) coming from a closeted privileged background, and Eddie (Donna Elvira) being an openly gay yuppie. Zac (Zerlina) and Marina (Masetto) are depicted as working class (we know this because they eat at Wimpy), while Don encourages his prey to take ecstasy and snort crack. There’s visual comedy care of brick-like mobile phones and 1980s ‘fashions.’ But, more interestingly, Don’s stance is equated with Thatcherism and his lack of remorse is mirrored in an epilogue that sees the Iron Lady urging ‘progress’, and the country to embrace Conservatism, without showing any hint of regret.
Ranjit Bolt’s modern English translation is fiery and fun, full of terse lines like ‘he needs a lock for his cock’ vying with double entendres such as ‘he ignores all the ladies, and takes the back door to Hades’. The catalogue aria humorously sees the exotic locations of Don’s sexual encounters replaced with the woods of Hampstead Heath and Clapham Common, while there are several knowing nods to ‘heaven.’
The singers and orchestra are unamplified, and yet projection and enunciation remain strong, even though most nightclubs don’t have the ideal acoustics for classical singing. Duncan Rock’s Don has a resonant baritone voice and a suitably commanding presence. Other notable performances come from Stephanie Edwards as Olivia (Don Ottavio), and Tamsin Dalley as the murdered mother, who appears as a ghost by bursting through a Phantom of the Opera poster.
The production does not, however, make the most of its setting. The performance takes place on a series of raised platforms and balconies, but the much vaunted promenade element hardly materialises as most people in the audience stand still throughout. The club scene that ends Act One has the novelty value of seeing Eddie, Alan and Olivia disguised as three members of the Village People, but they stand rigid for much of the time. Although some dancing occurs, and there are occasional appearances from muscle men in tight gold pants, this production feels geared towards achieving clarity when everything about the concept and venue would seem to demand a little more exuberance.
The opera is trimmed from nearly three and a half hours to two. While this is probably necessary for such a production, the experience of having the piece delivered in such a way proves a surprisingly disconcerting one. Interestingly one comes away feeling that, despite its innovative approach and setting, this Don Giovanni is perhaps not quite as outrageous as it might have been.