Photos - Jeff Busby
This Victorian Opera production of Don Giovanni does not entirely fulfil the aims “to be faithful to the creators’ original intentions and to be unattained by centuries of dusty tradition and wayward “interpretations”" as promised by the director Jean-Pierre Mignon in the programme notes. Don Giovanni is an opera standard which could be easily mistaken for a mere tale about the adventures of the famous bon vivant libertine and underestimated as an appropriate choice for young singers’ productions. This classical masterpiece is much more than that and presents several layers of meaning embedded in the imagery of the dramaturgy and musical dramaturgy. It is a harsh critique on society, where each character symbolises the human need for fulfilment and the variety of illusionary traps people could fall into. Da Ponte and Mozart combine and break the conventions of opera buffa and opera seria to illuminate the misfortune of those who conform with or rebel against society or worldly life and refuse to evolve. The singers have taxing roles and complex characters to deal with. Besides a reliable vocal technique they need the wisdom of life experience and interpretation analysis, and excellent acting skills which, as demanded by a visually-oriented modern audience, need to depart from the old stand-and-sing practice of operatic delivery.
Richard Roberts has created a winning minimalistic set. A steep triangular stage leaning towards the audience achieves spacial intimacy between performers and audience. Two crossing walls hide exits, display windows and allow for quick transformations, complemented by the smart lighting of Paul Jackson. Especially striking is the grave yard scene where the set turns into a family chapel and the majestic statue of the Commendatore dominates one of the walls. The dark-grey colour palette of this backdrop enhances the contrasting richness of the beautiful eighteenth-century costumes of Christina Smith and the burning red curtains and bright light of a chandelier during the two finales. What is more, the set references the inner and outer constraints the characters are dealing with, which Da Ponte and Mozart aimed to expose in this work.
Regrettably, errors in casting plague the narrative’ surface and leave little room for philosophical exposition in this production. The young Samuel Dundas has been given the huge burden of this difficult central role. It is a challenge to find an experienced baritone who can do true justice to this role. Dundas is very handsome and can move well but lacks the imperative charisma. The cunning and calculating seducer who enjoys all aspects of the female body and sensual experiences, the cold rapist and murderer, the mad rebel and, finally, the fearless Don Giovanni who willingly plunges into hell were all missing. Dundas was dressed all in white – a problematic decision to use the colour of purity for this dark character. His movement was greatly impeded by a long coat which was hiding the lower part of his body, its sexuality and movement. His beautiful voice was weak, especially in the lower and middle registers. His lovely and easy high register suggests that this young singer may be a tenor not a baritone.
The two ladies who sang Donna Anna (Caroline Wenborne) and Donna Elvira (Tiffany Speight) have been wrongly interchanged. Caroline Wenborne has a richer sonority in her middle and lower ranges than Tiffany Speight and could have been a much better Elvira. Wenborne’s previous roles suggest this. As a result, Wenborne did not have the brilliance in the high pianissimos which Mozart has written. The singer was wise for not pushing her voice, but her soft high notes were often overpowered by the orchestra. She delivered the arias well vocally. Her visual presence was not used to its full capacity, where Wenborne often left her hands relaxed along the side of her body in equal position.
Tiffany Speight has a focused voice throughout her entire range. Her brilliant high notes would have executed the high tessitura of Donna Anna’s role to perfection and would have contributed greatly to ensemble balance. Due to this flaw in casting there were times when Speight’s resonance overpowered the rest of the ensemble; for instance, during the trio Protegga il giusto cielo. She is a special talent. Her beautiful face and lovely figure were complemented by sumptuous emerald and purple gowns. Her stunning looks and absolutely radiant voice put the audience under a spell of rapture. Her histrionics were disappointing. Linked hands in front of her body or a single hand on her stomach were displayed at times when her character was expressing anguish or anger. There were glimpses of facial animation and realistic gestures which indicated that once this gifted singer departs from the dangers of stock-and-trade opera diva gestures and overacting and starts reading the deeper nature of her characters, she will become an irresistible package of superstar magnitude.
It was disappointing Speight was not given the opportunity to sing the additional scene In quali eccessi… Mi tradì, which Da Ponte and Mozart wrote for Caterina Cavalieri for the Viennese premiere. Besides dramatic and vocal fireworks this scene develops Elvira into an even more human character. Its content provides justification for her actions at the end of the opera while, by the power of contrast, it emphasizes Don Giovanni’s degradation.
A further fault in the casting of the solo parts is assembling a cast of inexperienced and experienced singers - vocally, histrionically or both. This immediately presents the danger of the experienced singers dominating and highlighting the inexperience of their colleagues. The delightful Michelle Buscemi (Zerlina) sang very well underdirected arias which lacked in sensual eroticism. On the other hand, Anthony Mackey (Masetto) exhibited a charming natural talent for realistic acting, but his rich baritone voice was impeded by the Italian language. Andrew Collis (Leporello), James Egglestone (Don Ottavio) and Steven Gallop (Commendatore) stood out with a professional blend of strong acting skills, engaging stage presence and solid resonant voices.
Unquestionably, the star of the production was Andrew Collis. In a perfect costume and armed with accurate gesture and declamation his Leporello amused the audiences and carried the entire opera on his back. The catalogue aria was an absolute ecstasy to watch and listen to. Victorian Opera and Australian audiences are lucky to have such an accomplished singer/actor. It is this scale of performance energy coupled with sexual allure that is necessary for the Don Giovanni role.
James Egglestone is another well-rounded singer/actor who had the challenge to represent the underdeveloped and inactive Don Ottavio character. In the course of a single aria Egglestone was able to portray deep affection and strong resolve with beauty of tone and strength of vocal and visual delivery. His Il mio tesoro intanto was cleverly directed to avoid the boredom of musical repetition, starting as a conversation with Elvira, Masetto and Zerlina and continuing as a reflection in front of the curtain. Egglestone provided excellent support during Donna Anna’s second scena Crudele... Non mi dir, where the tender kiss between the two characters was mostly touching. Unfortunately, the kiss was wrong because the scena is explicitly about the intimacy that Ottavio is craving which Donna Anna is not capable of giving after her encounter with Don Giovanni and the death of her father.
The singers were supported by a well-balanced professional orchestral sound. Having musicians in costume on stage during both finales was very effective. The orchestra could have been more inspired to play the demonic D minor sections and obbligato recitatives with a stronger musical gesture. Special praise goes to the repetiteur of the secco recitatives and continuo player David McSkimming. The secco recitatives were adorned with an exquisitely delicate continuo accompaniment and delighted the connoisseur with excellent changes of rhythm, crisp pronunciation and understanding of what each word means.
Local audiences are generous and easy to please and, it seems, hungry for opera. The old National Theatre is a good venue for opera. The audience filled two thirds of the auditorium. They applauded all numbers and cheered fondly the solo performers at the end of the opera. It is very fortunate that Victorian Opera is educating new fans by presenting Don Giovanni regionally.
Victorian Opera presents
Venue: National Theatre
Performance Dates: 3 & 5 March at 7.30pm, 7 March at 1.30pm, 10 March at 6.30pm, 12 & 14 March at 7.30pm
Tickets: from $30–$88, less for subscribers.
Visit: www.victorianopera.com.au or bookings Ticketmaster 1300 723 038 or www.ticketmaster.com.au