OLI THICKNESSE and DANIEL REVERE are thrilled by this year’s CUOS Mainshow.
West Road Concert Hall, 8 PM (plus 2 PM matinee on 22nd), February 20th-22nd, prices £7-£20.
In the last moment of the Act Two finale, the surviving principals asked the audience whether they would end up in heaven or in hell. At that moment, the question hardly seemed pertinent; forgive the cliché, but we were, for an awe-inspiring 3 hours last night, very much in heaven. After a disappointing CUOS mainshow last year, this was the society’s brilliant comeback: for one, the show was very much more approachable for an audience which might have comprised of opera-virgins. But there were so many more positives to take from this wonderful performance.
To begin with the set: artfully constructed, with a real impression of realism, a lot of effort had clearly been put into creating the layers of sandbags and relative platforms, while the miniature barrage balloons floating above the chaos below were a lovely touch. Although the setting before VE Day in the Second World War perhaps did not add much to the action of the opera, the idea of our horrible protagonist enjoying a weekend of leave was very enjoyable and convincing; the superb set design complimented this well. Moreover, the use of props was brilliantly achieved: be it a teddy bear, an authentic 1940s radio, or even just a notebook, the employment of props was restrained and tasteful. Also, Don Giovanni succeeded where 1984 failed horrendously: lowering a prop just the once for maximum effect.
The lighting design must also be applauded. The overture was a fantastic example of subtle lighting shifts, and this continued throughout the show, with varying levels of brightness being cast across the stage to compliment the monochrome set design. Shadows were also well incorporated: at moments, looming darkness threatened to overcome all the leads, which fitted the foreboding nature of the opera precisely. And the costumes and hair–oh, the costumes and hair. The 1940s style was well captured, especially in the chorus’ costumes (the jumpers were very much appreciated), while Zerlina’s hair was a masterpiece.
In a fast moving and potentially confused narrative, Emma Wilkinson’s direction was outstanding. There is often the problem in opera that characters can be left on stage, merely watching one of their number belt a wonderful aria, but with no sense that they are involved, just spectators. This was not the case at all: Wilkinson skillfully filled these moments with movement and characterisation, as demonstrated perfectly by Leporello (Henry Hawkesworth). Moreover, each of the principals seemed to have been characterized fantastically, while the sparsely used chorus were delightful and terrifying at respective moments. Unfortunately, (at least to begin with), the chorus suffered from the same problem as was found in last term’s The Magic Flute: woeful miming. However, this (along with occasional lighting faults) was just a brief moment of mediocrity in a thoroughly un-mediocre show.
In short, Michael Craddock was scintillating awfulness as Don Giovanni. A difficult character to pull off convincingly, Craddock achieved it with gusto and aplomb: at times disgustingly creepy and menacing, at times wonderfully seductive, oily and arrogant, it was a superb performance. But the other principals were just as phenomenal. Donna Anna (Billie Robson) was performed with petrifying rage and despair, and Robson seems to have come into her own as an actress since her genuinely terrifying Queen of the Night in last term’s The Magic Flute. Zerlina (Sophie Horrocks) was captured with a delightful playfulness and energy, and with a gorgeous voice to match. Sam Oladeinde’s voice was pure, delicate joy, and he was convincing at times in the tricky role of the confused and loyal Don Ottavio. Although Masetto (Peter Lidbetter) began poorly, looking uncomfortable on stage, his second appearance was superlative, and his surliness and frustration in the Act One finale was well carried off.
As for Il Commendatore (Hugo Herman-Wilson): well, I have never heard such a wonderfully mature and rich bass voice from a student. Amazingly powerful, it was just a pity that he couldn’t keep still as a statue. Donna Elvira (Janneke Dupre) was sublime, in short: Dupré and her golden voice are obviously going places, simple as. But the star of the show was undoubtedly Henry Hawkesworth’s Leporello: mischievous and despairing, Hawkesworth’s physical acting and clowning were brilliant light relief in an often heavy opera, and it was brilliant to watch.
Yes, there were slow moments, and, yes, at moments the acting did not entirely convince. But it was brilliantly executed and clearly enjoyable for the performers themselves; however, I would award this show five stars for, above all, its accessibility. Sung in beautifully clear English, there was no need for surtitles. The choice of opera itself was inspired: perfect for both an audience that has never experienced opera before, and also for those who live and breathe Mozart, whose music was fantastically performed by the Alba Orchestra. There is no reason to miss this show: it was a triumph.