Don Giovanni (Duncan Rock) is the young, buff, and very horny owner of a swanky Soho club. However his insatiable libido has gotten him into a spot of trouble. After raping closeted preppy boy Alan (Patrick Ashcroft), a confrontation with his mother (Tamsin Dalley) leads to her murder at Don’s hands. Pursued also by spurned trick Eddie (Mark Cunningam), and angry recently engaged couple Zak (Mark Dugdale) and Marina (Helen Winter), who Don tried to get his end between them, or, more precisely, in Zak, this motley troupe, along with Don’s long suffering Personal Assistant Leo (Zoe Bonner), are hell bent on seeing Don finally getting his comeuppance.
Dominic Gray’s adaptation of Mozart’s renowned opera sees all the characters’ genders switched apart from Don. Resetting the scene to a seedy London of 1987, we end up with Don as a predatory homosexual rather than a philandering straight male. The libretto is completely rewritten by Ranjit Bolt, who pens a completely original verse to fit the updated scenario. With explicit lines and raucous disregard, he breathes a unflinching, unashamed, and fun freshness into the opera. It’s obvious that Bolt has a profound understanding of Mozart opera, managing to match the composer’s masterful lyrical nuance. Bolt structures arias and choruses to incorporate the trademark repetitions and playful poetry that defines Mozart’s operas. Everything is surprising and nothing is forced.
There are moments when the opera is too aware of its clubland setting and epoch shift. At several moments the lighting around the room bursts into life and loud thumping electronic musical rearrangements are pumped through the soundsystem. However, all of a sudden it is dimmed to a miniscule din whilst the cast attempt to sing awkwardly above it. Also, a Wimpy restaurant, iconic bill posters of the era, and a segued moral parallel to Margaret Thatcher’s demise, are unecceary klaxons to remind us that this is the 1980s, despite it feeling more comfortably vaguely modern than anything else.
The main issue, however, is the staging. Although promising a promenade production, the audience in reality are kettled into the centre of the club. This leaves them with no choice but to strain themselves to gaze through the crowd to catch a glimpse of the action, and over bend an ear to hear the singing amidst the nightclub’s dull acoustic. If you end up in an unfortunate spot, it’s a real effort to try and get involved with what is otherwise a sharp and inspired production.
If you can get there early enough to claim yourself a spot near the orchestra, you’re in for a treat. Rock is a powerful baritone who understands and engagingly exudes the hedonistic pathos driving Don’s lust for relentless fucking. Bonner is also wry and coolly enduring as Don’s sidekick, itching to be free of cleaning up after his destructive lifestyle. Even the supporting roles are a joy to watch, bringing charisma and amusement to the personal devastations that Don trails behind him.
It’s such a shame that its attempt to capitalise on the novelty of the venue mortally hampers what is otherwise an fantastic venture. It aches to transfer to a more appropriate venue. But in the meantime, if you can ensure yourself a decent position for the performance, you’re in for an evening of operatic brilliance and panache.
Don Giovanni plays at Heaven, London, WC2N 6NG, until 30 April 2012. Tickets are £5 – £45. To book tickets and to find out more about the opera visit www.dongiovannitheopera.com.
Featured image: Duncan Rock as Don Giovanni. Photograph: Courtesy of Don Giovanni The Opera.