Opera

Opera Australia: Don Giovanni review [Melbourne 2015]

In a staging that is as magnificent as it is ingenious, director David McVicar breathes fresh life into trusty favourite Don Giovanni.

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Robert Jones’ epic stage design, seen first in the smaller Joan Sutherland Theatre last year, looks just as grandly impressive in the State Theatre. Chalky black and grey marble columns and walls soar to great heights overhead, with an ongoing array of sliding and flying set pieces creating a seamless flow between scenes. A patch of blue sky behind a graveyard is the only flash of colour for the evening in this richly textured, grayscale design. The centrepiece of the staging is a seemingly endless staircase, which slowly, and very satisfyingly, lowers into place.

Given that the opera’s finale see the Don make his descent into the depths of hell, the staircase brings a suggestion that the characters are already in the underworld, which is a hazy hell of their own making. Reflecting the class distinctions of the time, there is also a suggestion of “below stairs” drama, where “upstairs” is only glimpsed through broken rickety slats. In addition to the rear graveyard setting, Jones’ has strewn the sides of the stage with ominous piles of skeletons and skulls, keeping the spectre of death ever present.

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In a brilliant twist on the traditional living statue of the slain Commendatore, Don Giovanni and his manservant come across The Commendatore’s sculpted tomb, where the Don makes the foolhardy error of pushing the tomb lid ajar when recklessly inviting the dead man to dinner. The silhouette that marks the arrival of the ghoulish dinner guest is just one of the striking effects of David Finn’s expert lighting design.

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When the walking dead Commendatore opens the bowels of hell, a ghastly gaggle of ghouls pours forth, with the female demons in particular appearing to represent the Don’s past catalogue of sins.

Maestro Anthony Legge presides over an exacting rendition of Mozart’s glorious score from Orchestra Victoria. What the Mozartian-sized orchestra lacks in oomph it more than makes up for in exquisite detail, with the sharing of musical motifs across and around the pit heard with distinct and very pleasing clarity. Special mention, also, to the exacting work of Siro Battaglin on Fortepiano.

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It is pleasing indeed to see such a talented cast comprised entirely of local singers. Taking over duties from McVicar, who directed the Sydney premier last year, revival director Matthew Barclay respects the text, eliciting controlled, respectful performances from the cast. The use of space and height and the creation of new locations within what is basically a single set are both nothing short of superb.

It could be said that Teddy Tahu Rhodes owns the role of Don Giovanni in Australia, with the reasons behind this in full evidence this season. Rhodes nails the Don’s swagger and self-grandeur, and delivers his oily lies, excuses, seductions and manipulations with earthy charisma. Rhodes’ deliciously burnished baritone is in mellifluous form, and, if his diction leaves just a little to be desired, his deep, rich tone is such a pleasure to hear, and so perfect for the character, that it really does not matter.

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Shane Lowrencev gives his best comic performance to date, finding delightful layers of humour in the text and situations without even a hint of mugging for laughs. In an opera full of rape, murder and adultery, Lowrencev’s Leporello is a welcome relief. Lowrencev’s nimble bass is heard to great effect in the catalogue aria “Madamina, il catalogo è questo.”

Of the three female objects of Don Giovanni’s desire, Taryn Fiebig acquits herself most impressively, with her gently floating soprano sounding particularly angelic. Zerlina and Don Giovanni’s duet “Là ci darem la mano” is a true highlight of act one, and Fiebig’s rendition of act two aria “Vedrai carino” is utterly charming.

Australia’s first lady of opera, Emma Matthews, demonstrates her celebrated acting skills playing sympathetic heroine Donna Anna. Matthews’ voice seemed not at its full strength on opening night; her trademark vocal trills, however, were as wonderful as ever, particularly in act two aria “Non mi dir.”

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Jane Ede is in fine voice as Donna Elvira, delivering a lovely performance of act two aria “Mi tradì quell’alma ingrata,” but does not quite manage to put a distinct stamp on the characterisation of the obsessed lover.

John Longmuir impressed mightily as Don Ottavio last year, and while the luxurious tone of his tenor voice was still heard in abundance at the Melbourne opening, his breath support seemed shallow, leading to a somewhat shaky sound.

Jud Arthur delivers a spine tingling performance as the Commendatore, his commanding bass causing hairs of the neck to stand on end.

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Melbourne audiences who think they have already seen all Rhodes has to offer as the Don (based on the popular previous production) are strongly encouraged to experience this tremendous staging, the first of a trilogy of Mozart productions from McVicar. The Marriage of Figaro’s Melbourne November premiere is highly anticipated.

Don Giovanni plays selected dates at State Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne until 30 May 2015

Photos: Jeff Busby

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