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opera australia presents mozart’s ‘don giovanni’

Above : The cast of Don Giovanni. Featured image : David Parking as Commendatore and Andrei Kymach as Don Giovanni. Photo credit: Keith Saunders.

The theatrical team of Mozart and librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte produced some provocative operas in their time, with content that still shocks our modern minds. Sexual licentiousness, cruelty towards the lower classes, revenge, deception, manipulation of women, it was all there.

Their setting of the Don Juan story, that serial seducer, murderer and notorious noble is one of the pair’s most unsettling, dark and fantastic operas. It requires considerable dramatic timing, believable  characterisations and almost superhuman stamina to simply survive the demands of the singing.

In a bold start to its 2023 season, Opera Australia brandishes this classic’s no-holds-barred, shock-value elements  for all to deal with. Creatives shroud it in an uber dark packaging, with expert use of the stage space.

This is not always an easy watch for modern viewers in our world where class or gender inequality with heinous cruellty saturating the stage offends. This version , here in revival, stretches the moral and social grossness to a visual extreme and has complex, well-acted caricatures to match.

Mozart’s score is ably presented with nice subtlety and range under the direction of conductor Guillaume Tourniaire. The delicate nuances, avoiding too much emphasis on just the huge dramatic tone, is nicely matched with delicate lighting  design from David Finn that occasionally pierces the darkness with subtle, grisly glow.

Above:  Andrei Kymach as Don Giovanni, Cathy-Di Zhang as Zerlina, Andrew Williams as Masetto,and Yuri Kissin as Leporello plus ensemble cast. Photo credit : Keith Saunders.

The dripping darkness of this production’s sets and costuming is quite unrelenting, perhaps overwhelming for some. It succeeds though in keeping us centered in the grotesquerie of Don Giovanni’s lascivious behaviour and uncompromising, manipulative appetite.

From this  dank pit on stage, where misplaced power tries to triumph, some consistently  well-chiselled characters shine with energetic vocal and dramatic performances.  Director David McVicar, and in turn revival director Warwick Doddrell allow the  busy stage to be covered with contrast.  This is seen as contrast within and between classes, the clash of good and evil, or winners and losers in the dense tapestry of overlapping predicament.

All the Mozart and Da Ponte signature touches are well realised here. these include crowd scenes with predatorial characters woven through, infatuated, unrequited lovers in circular traps,  protagonists switching identities and main characters in fine spot moments of stillness as we take breaks from the action along the way.

The troupe assembled to display this opera’s horrors as well as many beautiful musical colourings perform with exemplary aplomb. The pair of fiancees, namely peasant couple Zerlina with Masetto and higher  class Donna Anna with Don Ottavio are well drawn.

The first pair (Cathy-Di Zhang and Andrew Williams) present with an urgent physicality and believable, lovable sentiment. The dynamic nature of their playful love and its sabotage by Don Giovanni is mirrorred musically in energetic vocal exchanges,  successfully tracing Mozart’s fiendishly fast banter as well as their joyful duets. The clarity of tenderness and innocence is to be enjoyed here.

Above: Sophie Salvesani as Donna Anna and Juan de Dios Mateos as Don Ottavio. Photo credit: Keith Saunders.

In more formal, prosaic profile, but no less tortured, glide the pair of Donna Anna (Sophie Salvesani) and Don Ottavio (Juan de Dios Mateos). They are very well cast here, with svelte singing and solid acting always. This couple, with intimacy delayed by crazed revenge, illuminate the dark set during many nicely sung scenes.

Don Ottavio’s arias ‘Dalla sua pace’ and the racier ‘Il mio tesoro intanto’ are highlights of the extended aria moments. They are sung with elevated poise, a  big heart and huge technical resources to match.

Bronwyn Douglass’s focussed and fiery Donna Elvira is a force to be reckoned with. Amidst the hopeless entrapment in Don Giovanni’s bent charisma she commands the stage space in any scene with a pointed purpose. Her precise,  fluid mezzo tone matches her character’s gutsy but ill-fated plight.

Douglass is a fine anchor with regards to vocal blend in ensemble moments. In the trio singing when  hunting the libertine Don Juan,  she creates shimmering soundscapes  with Don Ottavio and Donna Anna. Her window scene and trio  (‘Ah taci ingiusto core’) with the soon to be switched Leporello and Don Giovanni is beautifully shaped. The trajectory of her comic-tragic character are always delivered with verve and perfect dramatic timing.

The necessary master and servant tug-of-war needed for the social parody to survive in this story is an exciting one between Don Giovanni (Andrei Kymach ) and Leporello (Yuri Kissin). The agile voices of both, handle the increasing vocal acrobatics well as they near the Don’s day of judgement. Don Giovanni’s revolting treatment of  his servant as well as women is dish up in the final dinner scene with astounding savagery by Kymach.

Above: Bronwyn Douglass as Donna Elvira. Photo credit: Keith Saunders.

Leporello’s ‘catalogue’ aria bristles in Kissin’s delivery and Don Giovanni’s ‘La ci darem il mano’ is gentle, full bodied lyricism with the macabre and manipulative lust never too far away from the  well-voiced charm.

All stops are pulled out in the late out-of-this-world scene where the seducer is thrown to hell. The Commendatore is menacingly played and solidly sung by David Parkin. Visually he is plastered sans props or stiff costuming but in pale body make up and fabric robe. His chilling singing  is a measured, lithe epitomy of retribution.

The small army of vengeful female zombies with babies and pregnant forms that punish Don Giovanni is a confronting visual extending this penultimate scene. Combine this with the Don’s lewd gesturing and highly sexed positioning throughout and we have violence and power at a seething shameful explicit level before us.

Not at all timid, conventional or typical for the opera stage,  this Don Giovanni may take some by surprise, It is possibly full of extreme and graphic elements that Mozart plus Da Ponte would have loved to enrich their story centuries ago. Current audiences from  our era of improved social  equality but unfortunately still containing news stories of global and personal invasion can consume  this tale’s savagery, superbly and vividly recreated here.

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