Don Giovanni: Sir Thomas Allen relaunches Mozart’s production for Scottish Opera

MOZART’s unfortunate reprobate, Don Giovanni, is one of the great roles of the lyrical canon. There are few living men more familiar with the famous character than acclaimed singer and opera director Sir Thomas Allen, who is currently reviving his 2013 production of the play for Scottish Opera.

During his illustrious stage career, the English baritone played Mozart’s blue-blooded libertine around 350 times. Based on a centuries-old Spanish legend, the opera – whose screenplay is by the great librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte – tells the story of the titular and utterly dissolute nobleman, whose misdeeds (including murder and attempted rape) catch up with him in spectacular scenes. and supernatural terms.

Allen is often referred to as the “real Billy Elliot”, due to the fact that – as a working-class boy from a County Durham mining village who became a major operatic figure – he inspired the writer Lee Hall to create the beloved character of the schoolboy ballet dancer. Knighted for his services to the opera, Allen (who is a fanatical Sunderland AFC supporter) will step down as Chancellor of Durham University in July, after more than a decade in the role.

I caught up with him in the middle of rehearsals for his revival of his staging of Mozart’s famous work for Scottish Opera. His first performance as Don Giovanni was, he recalls, in 1977 at the famous Glyndebourne Opera House in East Sussex.

Although he went on to play the character in no less than nine different productions, he never felt he had tamed the role. “I always felt inadequate,” he comments.

“I don’t think I did that with all the roles, by any means,” the director continues (above), “but with Giovanni, I just wanted to wipe the slate clean and start over.

“I particularly remember the last production I did in Covent Garden [in London]… On the first day of rehearsals, I had to come and attack Donna Anna [who Giovanni attempts to sexually assault]then grab a sword and have a fight [with Anna’s father, the military chief Il Commendatore] …

“I felt completely useless. I didn’t feel like I was well built or belonged there.

The only way to make his performance work, Allen says, was to go back to first principles and build his characterization “from scratch.”

The lyrical interpretation in general, and the playing of Don Giovanni in particular, requires a constant process of revitalization, believes the director. “The worst thing in the world,” he continues, “is hearing an artist say, ‘I do this, and this is it.'”

Whether as a singer or a producer, Allen has always sought to avoid repeating himself. Doing the same thing in the same way is, according to him, “insecurity”.

An artist might think that a certain way of playing a role will continue to be successful if he reproduces it in another staging of the same opera. However, observes the director, “the chemistry changes” from one production to another, and repetition may not work in the new context.

“You get into a much more interesting realm,” Allen says, “if you allow yourself to be free, let it happen and see where it takes you.”

It will (rightly) be music to the ears of Scottish opera audiences who – although they may remember designer Simon Higlett’s sets, which recreate the streets of 17th-century Venice – can expect a production quite distinct from its 2013 incarnation. last year, directed by Sir David McVicar) and Jonathan McGovern (Demetrius in Dominic Hill’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream earlier this year).

The production will be refreshed, not only by cast changes between 2013 and today, but also because, says the director with a laugh, “I can’t remember what we did nine years ago.

“These things are changing. I am nine years older than then.

“Almost a new generation of singers has arrived. I think most of the singers involved in [the 2022 production] I probably wouldn’t have known that nine years ago.

Of course, Allen adds, his revival “will reference the original design.” Higlett’s vision for the play will, the director continues, “dictate a certain amount” of what happens on stage. “After that,” he said, “it’s really free time.”

Given how many Don Giovannis Allen has played over the years, I wonder if that experience leads to any particular intensity when it comes to directing Wood and McGovern in the role. “I have to be very careful,” says the director.

“There is a 35-year-old man in me who wants to get up and do it,” he admits with admirable candor. “I have to stem this flow.

“I tell myself every day in rehearsal to try not to go down the road of saying ‘what I’ve done is this and that’. That’s the difficulty for a singer-turned-director or an actor turned director.

“If Judy Dench were directing Lady Macbeth, she might well have to caution herself against falling into this particular trap…It’s about asking ‘is there an alternative’ and exploring all the alternatives.” Only then, he adds, do you “draw on your own experience”.

There is a real richness in this way of looking at the possibilities, not only of Mozart’s music and Da Ponte’s libretto, but also of the abilities and characteristics of each opera singer. It’s a richness, indeed, reflected both in Allen’s famous singing voice and in his speech, which carries the melodious tones of his youth in County Durham.

Given the decades he has devoted to opera, both as a singer and a director, it is hardly surprising that Allen has developed an understanding of the art form that is both philosophical and practice. Take, for example, his conception of opera singers as artists.

“The difficulty with [opera] singers, you’re dealing with bastards, you see”, he comments. “You’re not dealing with an actor and you’re not dealing with a concert singer. You are dealing with a mixture of both.

Indeed, he continues, working with opera singers is further complicated by the fact that what he calls “the proportions” of actor and concert singer in each opera performer varies from one to the other. While a singer might “wince on stage every time the note isn’t exactly where he wants it,” another opera performer might say, “I don’t care what the note sounds like. I play this role, in this way, and the sound that comes out of it, you just have to accept it, because that’s what goes with this character. Allen would, he says, “rather go” in the latter direction, emphasizing the character’s personality, emotions, and psychology at any given time. “Flair and imagination” are, he says, “much more interesting” than prioritizing “purity of voice all the time”.

This perspective has a special significance in the case of Don Giovanni. As Allen points out, the action of the opera takes place over a day or two.

“It’s a very intense time. The changes you go through during this time are enormous…

“There is a quest [due to Giovanni’s crimes] for some sort of retribution, from somewhere. From the very beginning of my acquaintance with this piece, there was an ongoing challenge with another being, some aspect of faith or religion, whatever that was.

This powerful spiritual dimension is “deeply present” in Mozart’s opera, Allen believes. “There is a challenge with God himself throughout the play. Giovanni is about to be struck by lightning several times.

This transcendental aspect of the opera is due not only to Mozart’s sublime music, says the director, but also to Da Ponte’s libretto. “The three operas of Da Ponte [The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni and Cosi Fan Tutte] are extremely important.

He remembers being asked, after a performance of Le Figaro in the United States, how he “managed the boredom” of playing so many performances of the same opera. He’s laughing.

“I don’t think I’m obsessive, but there’s never a dull moment. The booklet you are dealing with is just awesome.

“It shows a lack of imagination if you think you’re going to be bored one day. It’s not just what’s written on the page, it’s also what’s between the lines. This fruitful art, both of music and text, is as true of Don Giovanni as of The Marriage of Figaro, says Allen.

It is clear from our conversation that the director’s fascination and passion for Don Giovanni is intact – a fact which bodes very well for Scottish Opera’s expectant audiences.

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