Monday, October 03, 2016

Thoughts on OTC's Don Giovanni...

Firstly, a lot of publicity went into Roddy Doyle doing the libretto for the translation for this.  I'm not sure how exactly this worked: I don't know if Doyle is a fluent Italian speaker, and I'm sure there's already numerous English variants around for the likes of ENO and smaller English houses.  (OTC have in the past worked with small English festivals with similar interests sharing resources).  This added a level of expectation around the production itself, inevitable, since Doyle largely writes not merely about Dublin, but a north side working class Dublin which itself is established enough to have many stereotypical tropes.

Secondly - and I think this was key - the production was placed in the Dublin Theatre Festival which vastly changed the audience.  The Dublin performance were in the Gaiety (much more friendly an opera venue than most).  Cork audiences have even more luck: two performances in the Cork Opera house.  This enables a full orchestra, and OTC have partnered with RTE for use of the Concert orchestra.  This makes a change from the small forces OTC make do with and potential for bigger audiences.

This made this OTC production both unpredictable and tantalising.  OTC was taken over at the top level by Rosemary Collier about 3 years ago (who'd come from a glorious run at Kilkenny Festival) and quickly appointed Fergus Shiel as musical director.  Both were contemporaries of mine at TCD, and I think its fair to say that Shiel in particular was 20 years ahead of the current trend of entrepreneurial musicians: I recall him setting up the TCD Chamber Orchestra to have something to conduct.  His work since then has been eclectic: from Scottish Opera to the Crash Ensemble and many others.  His direction is finely tuned and supportive.  Sometimes I felt tempi were slightly sluggish but on the whole the pace kept up.

Where OTC excelled was in its casting: a gold-plated Donna Elvira from Munich-based Tara Erraught (with chieselingly perfect English diction that meant you didn't need the provided surtitles), Alexander Sprague as Don Ottavio, Máire Flavin’s Donna Anna, and John Molloy's roguish Leporello.  The male chorus at the close was underwhelming: I would have put the men on stage, if only to incite more power against the RTECO force, which was at that point in competition with the small chorus.  The Commendatore also struggled to be heard at this point.
That aside, much of the singing was great.  While its easy to pick out the now very experienced Erraught, the others did a solid job.  What Doyle particularly excelled at was in the recitatives: his sometimes wordy Dublin slang sometimes tripped up in repeated arias, but the recits flowed, despite use of local phraseology such as "kick on the arse", "I'm legging it", "stupid slapper" and "you desperate eejit."  These brought plenty of guffaws from the packed audience, but I was left feeling that Don Giovanni is not a comedy, and Doyle egged it rather a lot this way.  Perhaps that is more the fault of others, but it remains fair to say that worldwide opera goers might not be willing to accept.
The production itself, was, as a result, dictated by the libretto: as it very much relocated the opera to modern urban Dublin, Giovanni effectively became a Dublin "businessman" - or perhaps one of those amorphous figures who uses the term to cover less licit activities.  It wasn't, however, clear what it was Giovanni actually does.  The 2nd Act opened onto a quite clear representation of Glasnevin pub "The Gravediggers", which I presume is supposed to lead into the penultimate scene where the Don is dragged to hell.  In practice it was unclear why exactly we were at the Gravediggers, aside from the plot device of introducing Zerlina and Masetto.

Another plot flaw was that Donna Anna spent most of the opera in a ball gown, for no particular reason.  It was unclear whom her father was, or what role he played, and difficult for an unfamiliar audience to link the Commendatore at the end back to the man shot by Giovanni at the outset.
Another peculiarity was the sleazy backdrop which provided a set and occasionally turned into a nightclub (which was clear).  Yet most of the quasi pornographic imagery was homoerotic and had little to with the lascivious Don's womanising.  This didn't really work.  However, the slightly tarty dress for Donna Elvira did.  It didn't make huge sense that the other women in the opera wore demure ball gowns throughout.  However, these were more plot failures than libretto.
Overall, I do think its the best thing OTC have done for years, albeit from a low bar.  It did show what could be done with a decent budget and more innovative planning from the small company and the potential for audience numbers in the event.

What I did, however, note, was that this is probably the first time in years (if not ever) that I've gone to an opera staging in Ireland that was actually a full house.  I think its fair to say that the demise of the Gaiety as a venue for opera has not been matched by equal numbers at the BGE Theatre (which holds 2.5 times the capacity, but records dismal sales for opera, even for heavily hyped events).  It really does call for planners to look more carefully at where/when they play, and to try to share and reuse existing resources: one of the biggest flaws of OTC in recent years was weak accompaniments, resulting in impoverished representations.  Re-use of orchestras from other organisations can maximise resources from a small cost base to be shared among multiple small companies.  This can, and should include the upper tier of semi-professional and student ensembles.  More careful choices of venues and associations with festivals has definitely been a scoring point in recent years: it was very obvious to me that last nights audience was more of a "theatrical" audience than a classical audience.  While this may cause a loss of a more traditional classical audience, it has worked in this instance.  I definitely think the 800 or so folk who packed the Gaiety solid had a good night out, and this is an achievement that should lead to better things for OTC.

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