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Don Giovanni | Opera Australia
Written by Nicholas Routley   
Thursday, 29 September 2011 12:35
Don Giovanni | Opera Australia
Photos – Jeff Busby

There was a time not all that long ago when going to the opera meant forgetting about the action, just enjoying a sumptuous spectacle and great music. Nowadays, on the other hand, I approach an opera with the question, how will the action integrate with the music, and deepen the inner significance of the work?

With Mozart’s Don Giovanni the inner significance has to do with the immensely disruptive force that the unbridled sexuality of the protagonist has on contemporary society. This was starkly realised in Opera Australia’s current production by the pitting of Teddy Tahu-Rhodes’ brilliantly uninhibited acting, and his ever-changing adult-fantasy costumes, against Oberle’s bland, unchanging, vaguely 18th century set.

As an aside, I have to say that I am tired of Oberle’s set designs in general. They leave me with the same feelings as a visit to Ikea – everything works, it’s not cluttered, and nothing is kitsch, but it is completely free of stimulus to the imagination. To me, it bodies forth an aesthetic of the 1980s which we can now comfortably leave behind. I was actually sorry to miss Elke Neidhart’s much more recent production, which has been put aside for the revival of this one by Göran Järvefelt which must be over 20 years old.

Tahu-Rhodes’ acting was in another world. He was absolutely convincing, not only in his ability to turn from fantastically self-confident male to bully in an instant, but also in the fear he showed for the statue at the end, and the courage he showed in overcoming it. His seduction songs, La ci darem and Deh, vieni alla finestra were sung with melting charm, while his treatment of Leporello was reminiscent of Siegfried’s treatment of Mime. While his voice perhaps lacks the variety of timbre to convey this by itself, he more than made up for this on the stage. He stole the show, as a good Don Giovanni should.

Which is not say there were not beautiful contributions from the rest of the cast. My favourite was Taryn Fiebig’s Zerlina, full of the immaturity of Zerlina’s stage age of 16 or so, flirtatious and innocent, and all exactly matched by her silvery voice. She wasn’t allowed to be quite as erotic as Mozart intended though. In her aria Vedrai, carino the text declares that she has a certain remedy which she carries “behind” and then encourages Masetto to “touch me here”. This was expurgated by both surtitles and action – as, in fairness, it certainly would have been in Mozart’s time. Rachelle Durkin gave an insight into a woman whose world is in the process of being turned upside down by the Don – passionate yet indecisive, and she sang her difficult revenge arias with the neurotic energy of the torn soul. Conal Coal played a Leporello divided between revulsion and the vicarious pleasures of the voyeur; and Andrew Jones’ Masetto was a grumpy, surly bloke who stood out among the peasants (yes, so named in the programme) who were depicted in the 18th century tradition of happy cardboard shepherds and shepherdesses.

Both characters are surprisingly hard to play, but they are nothing compared with the difficulty of making Ottavio convincing. He is completely vile – selfish, pompous, and with zero empathy or imagination. Yet his first aria is gorgeous. Henry Choo sang gorgeously, but seemed at sea with the staggering baseness of this Don, whose behaviour makes that of Don Giovanni seem admirable. Ottavio is as dead as Giovanni is alive. Jacqueline Dark as Elvira, the woman by now completely wrecked by Giovanni, sang her arias very well, but as if she was in an 18th century production – she just walked downstage and delivered. To me it seemed at odds with the vibrancy of much of the other acting.

The singers were all a delight to hear. But despite that, for me the musical side of this performance didn’t quite gel. The conductor, Mark Wigglesworth, often seemed to take tempi either too fast or too slow for the singers, and then refused to bend them. Furthermore, he seemed so afraid of drowning the singers that at times he hardly gave them enough support. There was some beautiful playing from the violins, but it’s a long time since I’ve heard this excellent orchestra play even a little raggedly or out of tune. Maybe it was just the shortness of energy that goes with second nights.

To my mind the whole opera was too fully lit. Many times characters in it are supposed not to recognise each other – this depends for its credibilty on the darkness which was omnipresent at night in the eighteenth century, before street lighting. Furthermore, in this opera, a play of darkness and light would have underlined Don Giovanni’s subversiveness in society.

All this added up, however, to a very interesting and thought-provoking night at the opera. And Teddy Tahu-Rhodes’ performance is worth walking miles to see.

Opera Australia presents
Don Giovanni
by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Director Göran Järvefelt

Venue: Opera Theatre | Sydney Opera House
Dates: September 26 – Nov 5, 2011
Tickets: $297.00 – $55.00

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