Don Giovanni review (Sydney Opera House)

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The curtain hangs at an angle, almost as if it’s been partially torn down, not completely obscuring the stage. At the fringes, in dark recesses, we can see scatterings of cruddy human skulls. It’s not pretty. Happily, it’s not so chillingly realistic as to call up, too strongly, associations of modern history: it’s judiciously more Pirates of The Caribbean; or something. The Canadian conductor, Jonathan Darlington, took to the podium. At last, a conductor with proper conductor’s hair. Then, the dramatic opening: a strident D Minor chord that preempts the dire tragedy that awaits our hero, Donny G.

But the first and foremost hero of this production isn’t Don Giovanni, as you might expect. In any case, he’s hardly a hero. More your cad; blighter; villain. The most visible hero is the set, followed closely and inextricably by lighting and costume. It almost looks like a film shot in black-and-white, or sepia, such is its monochromatic emphasis. And why not? This is, after all, a black-and-white opera and, though basic black may be the overwhelming colour of the couture, it’s easy to distinguish goodies from baddies. Mozart and his librettist, da Ponte, are definitely having fun with us and, more particularly, with the pretences and hypocrisies of high Viennese society, back in the day; lest there be any doubt, there’s even a scene where the performers are laughing and pointing at the audience.

Sir David McVicar’s direction, especially (but not only) in the art department, is meticulous. Every entrance, exit, position and posture has been thought through. Many setups are  painterly, with people arranged like beautiful props. The set has grand scale and tricky perspective which allows us to entertain the illusion of great depth of field.In the distance, a graveyard of rickety headstones conjures ghost stories and, in the foreground, dilapidated ramparts: massive columns and beams suffice, variously, as a palace, or den of iniquity; a garden; public square and more.

David Finn’s superb lighting design and the costumes are even a little bit Indiana Jones, which is oddly fitting, as the famous ‘where does it hurt?’ sketch from that franchise clearly originates from a tender, suggestive scene in DG. Indeed, it’s one of the scenes in the opera that takes you by surprise: one moment, high melodrama; the next, comic relief.

In the opening moments of the work, in many ways a baritone’s opera (key characters, DG, his whinging servant, Leprorello, and the Commendatore DG does in, are all baritone or bass roles), before voices are up to operating temperature, it’s something of a flurry of low-pitched warbling, but once the throats and diaphragms dilated  it became apparent we had a cast gifted musically, as well as theatrically, offering plenty of interest and individual distinctiveness.

Shane Lowrencev is arguably OA’s best comic actor and, as such, embodied perfect casting as Leporello, even if he didn’t knock my socks off with his singing consistently. His take-off of Teddy Tahu Rhodes (DG) was a brilliant feat of mimicry, though. Teddy impressed, as always, in the customary manner, with the sheer power and carriage of his unmistakable instrument.

Elvira Fatykhova plays Donna Anna, the Commendatore’s (Jud Arthur’s) violated daughter and shows profound versatility and, at times, sublimely delicate tone, the vocal equivalent of fine-bone china. John Longmuir plays her fiancé, Don Ottavio, and a sweeter, smoother, more agreeable tenor   you’ll never hear. He surprised and delighted, too, with melismatic surety.

Jud Arthur’s growling bass was produced with even professionalism. Nicole Car, as the jilted Donna Elvira, once again earned the favouritism of the audience, with her expressive soprano. In this company, it becomes a rather arbitrary call, but my sentimental favourite might well be Taryn Fiebig (as peasant girl Zerlina, yet another of DG’s marks), who, especially in the second act, outdid even herself with a rich, honeyed, self-assured tone that transcends mere technical prowess. Finally, Richard Anderson’s Masetto (Zerlina’s intended) fulfilled the need for a solid, solemn bass.

Given that Mozart & da Ponte knocked out DG in such short order, it’s stood the test of time rather well. This, thanks to their mischievousness and Mozart’s trademark sound; his score punctuates the drama rather than determines it and this could be seen as an inversion of how many other operas work. (Discuss.) Last time I checked, DG was number ten (with a bullet?) on the official list of the world’s top ten operas; as in most performed. Not only is this the calibre of production that, I expect, helped place it there, but the kind that should help keep it there, if not send it scurrying up the charts.

[box]Main image: Teddy Tahu Rhodes as  Don Giovanni presented by Opera Australia at the Sydney Opera House until August 30. Picture by Lisa Tomasetti.[/box]

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