Don Giovanni - Royal Opera House, 10 September 2008
Well, I am pleased to report that musically at least, this second night of the season was a vast improvement on the first. And if the audience wasn't exactly a better one, it was at least a markedly different one. Downstairs, the familiar tap of Ferragamo against parquet and a faint smell of hairspray marked the return of the queens, counsels and assorted bankers to their rightful boxes. Upstairs, it was socks, sandals and sandwiches as usual.
But back to the music. Covent Garden shows often improve as the run progresses - especially revivals, like this one, where rehearsal time is limited. And in this case, the previous combination of a first night, an unpredictable audience, and being beamed live and in close-up around the world's cinemas can't have helped singers' nerves. The production itself remains by turns tacky and dull, but the performances were so much better second time round.
Most improved was Miah Persson, sweetness and innocence outside, a tumble of hormones within, and this time round, the secure mistress of Zerlina's vocal demands. Robert Gleadow (still only 24!) was an equally impressive Masetto, and they displayed undisputable physical rapport, wrapping themselves around each other as if the honeymoon had already started.
We were again issued with a pre-show apology for Marina Poplavskaya's health, and again she proved little if anything was wrong. Both Or sai chi l'onore and Non mi dir displayed a tissue-thin top but that was it. Her Donna Anna, emotionally numbed, single-minded in her quest for vengeance, was a smart piece of casting and convincingly acted.
Joyce DiDonato again unravelled thrillingly as Donna Elvira, bewitched and eventually unhinged by Don Giovanni's wiles.
The Dirty Don himself was more problematical - and it wasn't just the stringy ginger wig. Simon Keenlyside has an intelligent and just fundamentally decent air that doesn't sit comfortably with this determinedly anti-intellectual production. He can't match the swarthy feral magnetism of last year's Don Giovanni, Erwin Schrott (wisely he doesn't try). His Don seduces with words, not pheromones, and his seduction arias carried far more weight than the oddly unconvincing murder at the start and the gluttonous debauchery of the finale. The orchestra sped past him in his Champagne Aria but everything else was sung with grace and musicality.
Kyle Ketelsen's robustly sung Leporello, in an even more dreadful wig, was an able counterweight, a properly reluctant partner who conspires in his own oppression simply for the cash. He needed to dig harder for the laughs with this audience than the first, but he got them in the end.
Don Ottavio is not the most dynamic of roles - all he has to do really is sing a couple of arias nicely. Ramón Vargas certainly has the voice, even if it's a bit more Italianate than we might expect for Mozart. He managed a lot better than he had on the first night, lyrical and flowing, just a little pinched at the top, and faded genteely into the background when he wasn't required. Neatly done.
I wasn't quite as thrilled with Sir Charles Mackerras as the critics have been, but he did a more than able job with the modest number (an advantage in itself) of players, including the superbly-drilled onstage bands. Rapport between pit and stage showed a marked improvement, relaxation and co-operation both playing their part, though again it was clear that those who slipped could expect little sympathy from the podium.
One performer at least has managed to get a few bonus column inches this week - that's MAW Emma Reed who descends to hell with Don Giovanni (minus kit) in a Page 3-style finale, clairvoyantly scripted well before the Sun came on board. Here she is 'without costume' in The Sun, and here's the pearl-clutchers' version from genius of teh Photoshops, OperaChic.