Claire Frampton reviews Mozart’s Don Giovanni with Oxford Alternative Orchestra, St John’s College, 30/01/20
Don Giovanni (1787) is one of Mozart’s best known operas, but this production interpreted the story in a new time zone – a town in southern Italy towards the end of World War II. A fresh translation in English by Amanda Holden made this an accessible performance for a contemporary audience, without need for subtitles, allowing for an unfiltered experience. The twentieth century setting, with its wartime atmosphere and period costumes, gave fresh perspective to the original storyline and re-imagined the work‘s themes of gender politics and liberty, while the recently-renovated auditorium at St John’s College allowed for both an intimate acoustic and close proximity of the audience to the performers. All of these elements helped to create a unique production.
The set evoked a rustic feel, conveying a dwelling in need of renovation with its outside coating coming off and revealing bricks. The three-dimensional features, such as an old wheel, ladders leading up to a small platform and an open window on stage right, created a sense of depth but also allowed for interesting interaction by the performers. For example, in Act II Don Giovanni serenaded a lady in the window, accompanied by a live mandolin on stage. Directed by Jonny Danciger, the production was mostly realistic except for the second half, and there was a focus on the theme of decay with the ruined town. This added greater poignance to the extreme emotions of the characters on stage. The set designer, Christina Hill, revealed that she had taken her inspiration from images of rural wreckage from World War II.
The cast, comprised of University and Conservatoire students, was particularly talented and the quality of their singing effectively portrayed anguish and depth of emotion. The members of Oxford Alternative Orchestra gave a commendable performance, conducted by Hannah Schneider who is fast building an international reputation. Overall, the wartime ambience, intimate acoustic and the high standard of performance from upcoming opera professionals made for a convincing production of Mozart’s timeless classic, re-invigorating the work for a new era.