“I showed you a life outside of the closet”
Kylie once told us ‘you’ll never get to heaven if you’re scared of getting high’ which in all honesty is less an effective way to open a review than to finally shoehorn one of my favourite pop lyrics onto this blog. The tenuous link is that this gender-switching reimagining of Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni is occupying the rather unlikely surroundings of legendary gay nightspot Heaven, situated under the arches at Charing Cross on Sunday and Monday nights for the next couple of weeks.
Though one of the most popular operas in the world, it is safe to say that you probably haven’t seen a Don Giovanni like this one in Dominic Gray’s marvellous production. Relocated to the heady nightclub scene of London in 1987, this Don is more interested in tenors than sopranos and so David Collier’s book flips the gender of the majority of the characters, mixes in all kinds of sexualities in a heady brew, yet still emerges with a coherent, clear narrative for this recast story. What really makes this work spark though is Ranjit Bolt’s rejuvenated libretto.
It is, quite frankly, hilarious. Profane, lascivious, honestly sexual and bluntly cruel, it is the perfect vehicle to carry the updating and demand the full attention of the watching audience. It is helped by being sung by an excellent company whose crispness and clarity of diction (for the most part), in this rather cavernous venue, is to be commended. Mark Cunningham and Helen Winter stood out in smaller roles, but Zoë Bonner’s long-suffering hugely-bequiffed PA Leo is a sheer delight. From the opening song, she grips and subsequently holds on the audience’s empathy and is the perfect touchstone throughout the show, especially in the brilliant (and all-too-accurate) relocating of the Catalogue Song to notorious homosexual hangouts.
And then there’s the Don. Duncan Rock is perfectly cast here, a man for whom the word strapping does no justice, he physically looks the part of a bed-hopping playboy who could get anyone to forgive him anything with a flex of a pec. But more importantly, he sounds like a dream too, his beefy baritone rising to the challenge of this leading role and more than meeting it, exuding charisma and a wonderfully blatant sexuality, and also maintaining the lyrical clarity that is ultimately a hallmark of this production.
The subterranean club has been most effectively dressed to present the seedy neon glow of Soho, not so far from the truth here!, and also emerges as an inspired choice as a space large and flexible enough to allow the action to play out at various points throughout the room and still have enough room for a pocket orchestra: Joan Lane’s superbly lush string-laden re-arrangements sounding gorgeous.
My only gripe would be the description of it as a promenade production, with the suggestion that we can follow the actors and singers around as they move from place to place. There was no opportunity to move at all last night, such was the volume of the crowd, which meant there were moments missed, sights unseen and words unheard – a frustration especially as it always seemed to be funny things I was missing.
There’s no doubting that contemporary opera companies have got the right idea is addressing the preconceptions many hold about opera and trying to break those down through new and innovative productions, but care does need to be taken to ensure the stars are all in alignment for the particular show in mind. OperaUpClose scored a huge success with La Bohème and thought they had coined a new genre in ‘pub opera’ but my experience last week with their problematic new take on Carmen which rehashed many of the same ideas would suggest that that was perhaps more of a one-off triumph, specific to that piece – not even their take on Don Giovanni at the Soho last year really inspired.
So when I congratulate the team here on an exceptionally well-judged marriage of innovation, material and venue, that does not mean I want to see lots more operas randomly appearing in gay nightclubs. All adaptations need to be lavished with as much care and attention as has been given here if they are truly to work, rather than assuming this is a template that can be easily replicated. But this Don Giovanni has that freshness of vision, a musical and lyrical intelligence that should be praised and stands an excellent chance of actually bringing, and retaining, a new audience.