Don Giovanni and The Rake’s Progress (Glyndebourne)
New Statesman, Aug. 1977
Suddenly this summer, the ice broke in the Garden and the Wells; and opera became outspoken in language and gesture. As a result I began to harbour unworthy suspicions about Peter Hall's much-admired production of Don Giovanni. Perhaps the electrifying Act One thunderstorm, for example, was just another trendy gimmick symbolising the rake's inevitable progress, from flash to clap? Not so. There were no signs of forcing or grafting, and no merely stock ideas. The whole production, as I saw it, stemmed naturally from one single seed of interpretation. But it might equally be viewed as springing from a basic misconception.
The opening scene showed a sombre Seville. Lowering skies and raised umbrellas made it plain that Spain stays mainly in the rain. Nature herself sided with Peter Hall deploring greedy and violent concupiscence. She even affected the designs, which had a dark look of disapproval. But the subfusc puritan conscience seemed in perpetual conflict with the colourful cavalier music. On that score the hero's personality needs to be interpreted as electromagnetic; the shock is part of the attraction. Surely Shaw has it right. Just as Leporello grudgingly serves his master, so Don Giovanni in turn is the animated instrument or comic suffering servant of a cosmic life force. Yet instead of the theatrical equivalent of “summer lightning made audible” we were presented with the dark night of a lost soul. So both the alternate casts, though admirably competent, were rather overcast, and the evenings lacked stars.
But the teamwork was thereby enhanced; and the Giovanni I saw, Thomas Allen, made an outstanding success of the part through which every true (as well as untrue) man seeks to project himself. Richard van Allan was suitably surly as his highly uncivil Seville servant. Of the three victimised ladies, Rachel Yakar's Donna Elvira impressed me most. Her role bisects the love-hate line from lofty Anna to lowly Zerline, so that longing and loathing often have to be expressed in the same breath. The long top A's in her Act Two trio struck the needful note of confused infatuation most sensitively. Bernard Haitink's aptly austere and disciplined direction was as probing and revelatory as a skilled cross-examination. Thus Anna's recognition of her father's slayer took its cue from the orchestra, which had just put up a Wanted poster in sound.
The dark Don was replaced by a bright Rake (David Hockney's discerningly Hogarthian designs made a bigger splash of colour) as if the two works had swapped managers. The Rake's Progress, with the poetic and intellectual weight of the Auden-Kallman libretto reinforced by the heavy irony of Stravinsky's strong score, is crushingly pessimistic. Despite all his deadly sins, Don Giovanni is at least offered (however implausibly) the chance of being converted into a Don John of the Cross. Tom Rakewell is brutally soiled and broken by Satan, just for enjoying idleness and affluence; which is enough to make any opera-goer uneasy. Leo Goeke performed as well as this neutral part permitted. It was not his fault that the Rake is just a common-or-garden tool of Fate, without any real cutting edge of Mozartian elan vital. Much more vivid and compelling were the opposing forces of good and evil that battle for his soul. As Anne Trulove, Felicity Lott gave a great deal of pleasure, while Samuel Ramey's Nick Shadow was well cast. Both managed to enunciate with fair clarity, despite Stravinsky's weirdly-stressed word-setting, which often gives the voices a marked, foreign accent.
So ended the third Glyndebourne lesson (Falstaff was the first) showing how sexual offenders get their come-uppance, with ever-increasing penalties. But the damnation that was so real to Mozart may have lost its terrors now; indeed the provision of fire, smoke and Lucifer might well have been just by courtesy of the sponsors, Imperial Tobacco. Similarly the syphilis that ruined poor Tom (and poor Delius, whose grave at Limpsfield may be visited en route) is now far more tractable. It all shows how closely, art reflects life; even the wages of sin are losing their purchasing power.