In his introductory note to the programme of Opera North’s new production of Don Giovanni, Richard Farnes, who has recently taken over as the company’s music director, says ‘[there] will be many for whom this is their first Don Giovanni, indeed their first opera’. Obvious but wise words, which every director should have engraved above his or her desk or drawing board. Obviously, Olivia Fuchs, who directs this production, doesn’t. She has forgotten, supposing she ever thought of it, that her first duty is to make the action clear, and that that by no means precludes subtlety, innovation, freshness to make seasoned spectators think again. But consider the trio in Act II, when Donna Elvira comes out on to her balcony — here a catwalk — to pour out her heart, while the Don and Leporello swap clothes, the Don singing seductively while Leporello mimes, so that the Don can acquire Elvira’s maid as his 1,004th Spanish conquest. Fuchs has the Don lying on a slab, not doing anything, while Leporello is hardly in Elvira’s sightline. It is an excruciatingly painful scene, a broken-hearted woman being mocked and tormented, though it often raises insensitive laughter. Here it didn’t, but there was no pathos either.
The main interest, in fact, as throughout the evening, was in the marvellously detailed but grandly shaped orchestral accompaniment, under Farnes, whose command of the undercurrents of the score is complete. The vertiginous balance which this score maintains between anguish, longing and terror on the one hand and exuberance, reckless energy and subversive mirth on the other is almost never realised in performance as thoroughly as this. The achievement was all the more remarkable because there was so little else about the performance that was really satisfactory, and certainly none other of its elements was on this exalted level.