Stimulating and Thought-Provoking Don Giovanni from NZ Opera

New ZealandNew Zealand Mozart, Don Giovanni: The New Zealand Opera, Chapman Tripp Opera Chorus (Chorus Master: Michael Vinten), Orchestra Wellington  / Wyn Davies (conductor), St James’ Theatre, Wellington, 11th, 14th, 16th, 18th October, 2014

Don Giovanni (Mark Stone)
Leoporello (Warwick Fyfe)
Donna Anna (Lisa Harper-Brown)
Don Ottavio (Jaewoo Kim)
Commendatore (Jud Arthur)
Donna Elvira (Anna Leese)
Zerlina (Amelia Berry)
Masetto (Robert Tucker)

Director: Sara Brodie
Assistant Director: Tamsyn Matchett
Set Adaptation: John Verryt
Costume Designer: Elizabeth Whiting
Lighting: Jeremy Fern

Of all Mozart’s operas Don Giovanni seems at once the most modern and archetypal, the most amoral and moralistic. At the time the opera was written the well-known story could be easily refracted through the scenario of a wrongdoer who’s punished at the end by divine retribution. Even given their rather more “enlightened” world-views, both Mozart and his librettist, Lorenzo Da Ponte, would have still considered such a denouement very much in the inevitable order of things, invoking a supernatural order which, if transgressed, moved to punish accordingly.

Of course, in more recent times there’s been a distinctly Western cultural inclination to disavow the existence of a supernatural world (excepting “blips” like the recent Twilight teen-cult print-fictional series), and rely upon secular morality as supplying a motivational force for personal and societal good. Philosophers have foreseen this trend over time, of course, some expressing their doubts accordingly at the wisdom of eradicating traditional symbols of moral force – one was the 18th-century wit, satirist and thinker Voltaire, who famously wrote, “If God did not exist it would be necessary to invent him”.

Mozart’s and Da Ponte’s Don Giovanni committed crimes against individuals and against human society in his relentless and insatiable desire for sexual conquest and bodily gratification – earlier, the Greeks had called this kind of behaviour “hubris” and had in their mythology and literature punished the transgressors via intervention by the gods. In accordance with this tradition Giovanni also received his just deserts for his excesses, delivered through the hand of a heavenly avenger, a “stone guest” at Don Giovanni’s supper, one who required expected recompense from his host.

So, moving forward into the 21st Century, what does happen in a world that’s become secularized to the point where certain individuals recognize no moral checks and balances regulating their behaviour? How can such people be controlled, deterred from wrongdoing, or, failing such circumstances, held accountable for their actions? Lo and behold, it’s just such an individual, rampant in such a world, that we meet in the title role of Opera New Zealand’s current production of Don Giovanni.

Director Sara Brodie plunged us, together with her cast of angst-ridden characters, into what seemed like a seedy cosmopolitan urban night-life scenario (with west-Mediterranean flavourings) right from the beginning of the action. The ambiences created here and throughout convinced entirely in situ, the occasional lack of time-and-place-synch. with the libretto mattering far less than the pace of the action, the dovetailing of the different movements on stage, and the urgently throbbing musical line which helped advanced action and character so wholeheartedly and dramatically.

It held us in thrall at the outset – the “small-hours-surreal”, often intoxicated comings and goings of people in and around a nightclub, the frustration (from Leoporello, the Don’s ill-used “henchman”) and desperation (from Donna Anna, most recent casualty of the Don’s predatory licentiousness) portrayed by people inextricably involved with Giovanni at the start, the murderous confrontation with Donna Anna’s father, the Commendatore, and the anguished horror of the daughter, expressed in terms of shock and guilt together with her “slow-on-the-uptake” fiancee, Don Ottavio.

Then straight afterwards (in the same dramatic sweep of interaction) came the appearance of Donna Elvira (another “besmirched woman” from the Don’s past), swearing revenge amid her feelings of love-lorn desperation, only to be given the slip by the Don, leaving Elvira with Leoporello’s voyeuristic exposée (his i-phone replete with statistics and images) of his master’s amatory conquests – then, with a swirl of the Don’s cloak, we were presented with yet another scenario, a pre-wedding party, the bride-to-be (Zerlina) with her “hens”, and the prospective groom (Masetto) with his “young bucks”, complete with the low-life accoutrements of a pre-nuptial “night on the town”.

It all had a somewhat dystopian “Courtenay Place, Wellington” feel to it, one which by dint of proximity enlarged the verismo feeling of the action, even if the occasional square peg had to be bludgeoned into a round hole, or else thrown away altogether. For example, Masetto’s gulling by the Don over Zerlina, using the lever of social class didn’t ring true in this modern context. No self-respecting band of bogans would have stood by and allowed one of their number to be come-uppanced by some prat in a leather jacket! – and neither would have the Don’s promises of “marriage” to a modern miss such as Zerlina cut any mustard. No matter – the theatrical cut-and-thrust of dynamic interaction was the prime consideration, one which we couldn’t help be swept along by, on this occasion.

Things continued throughout the evening to work brilliantly according to their own lights, Sara Brodie’s sharply-focused dramatic instincts delivering to us a hard-hitting, totally involving saga of visibly degenerating self-indulgence in the person of the Don in a nightmarish, but still identifiable modern setting. Up-to-date technologies were very much to the fore, most notably the ‘phones, used both amusingly (Elvira and the Don communicating to one another between the street and the hotel bedroom, for example) and shockingly (Don Ottavio discovering, via Giovanni’s ‘phone, certain compromising images involving his fiancee!) A strength of the production was that nothing seemed “gimmicky”, that the gadgetry was subsumed in the naturalistic flow of it all – in this respect no praise could be too high for the acting of the principal singers in their handling of these objects – entirely convincing!

A number of years ago Wellington City Opera’s production of Don Giovanni featured a “humanistic” solution to the problem of the “Stone Guest” at the Don’s supper, come to claim his victim, one which was replicated in spirit, here, perhaps rather more symbolically on this occasion, and certainly more spectacularly. As the season has still to finish at the time of my writing this I hesitate to specify detail and spoil anybody’s thrill of surprise – but I firmly wish to emphasize that, like almost everything else done in this production, the focus on dramatic continuity and verismo inevitability produced an overwhelmingly powerful result, completely convincing at the time, whatever shape or form one’s own retrospective responses, positive or otherwise, regarding the changes might take.

My remarks thus far concerning the opera’s different characters reflect the skill and wholeheartedness with which the principal singers threw themselves into the maelstrom of this “few-holds-barred” production. One sometimes has occasion with opera performances to praise the singing and pragmatically consign to the regretful realms any corresponding lack of acting skills regarding the performers – there were no such caveats, here, with every character not only sounding but looking extremely convincing in both aspect and movement.

What struck me was the feeling of ensemble in this performance, enabling the characters to both give and draw strength to and from one another – nothing was enacted in a vacuum, nothing portrayed as “stand-alone”, the interactiveness being, of course, crucial to character motivation and theatrical dynamism. How things have changed for the better from the old “stand and deliver” style of operatic declamation! – one couldn’t help but register the volatile, sometimes “whiplash” aspect of much of the recitative, the characters leaving the hapless harpsichordist (reprehensibly uncredited in the programme) to catch up as best he or she could (the instrument’s tinkling actually obscured for a lot of the time in the bluster of naturalistic interaction).

In effect, leading the on-stage charge was English baritone Mark Stone’s powerful, volatile Giovanni, a focused, hard-driven portrayal, both in physical and vocal terms, not without humour or charm in places, but certainly with a brisk, turbo-charged default-setting. His energy and drive worked wonderfully well in the “Champagne” aria, and he was able to conversely summon up honeyed tones in his balcony serenade to Dona Elvira’s maid, though less so earlier in the famous “La ci darem la mano” duet with Zerlina, his voice there wanting some of the sweet, insinuating ease of the accomplished seducer. He gauged his interpretation of the Don’s downward degradation towards the final scene to great effect, and convinced right to the end with plenty of heroic defiance in the face of his doom.

Australian Warwick Fyfe, well-known to local audiences, played the Don’s lecherous side-kick Leoporello with a fine blend of cynicism and bemusement, ever the opportunist, and ready to bend in the direction the wind blew – as for his singing, Fyfe began as he intended to go on, forcefully and sonorously voicing his opening complaint as to his treatment by his employer; while his presentation of the famous “Catalogue Aria” was a voyeuristic and confidently-delivered tour-de-force, complete with amusing cyber-assistance.

Set against these two and their activities were the latest objects of the Don’s relentless sexual adventures, the young and well-heeled Donna Anna (Lisa Harper-Brown), and the earthy, vibrant, good-time-girl-next-door, Zerlina (Amelia Berry), plus the recently jilted Donna Elvira (Anna Leese) passionately, if ambivalently pursing Giovanni in the hope of either vengeance or reconciliation. The women were strongly differentiated – Lisa Harper-Brown’s Donna Anna was splendidly acted, awkwardly (not inappropriately) portrayed, conveying the sense of a sexually-awakened young woman torn between desire for and guilt over the Don. I thought her voice occasionally strained, “clouding over” in places where one ideally wanted clearer tones, though she resolutely held her line, and contributed plenty of throbbing feeling to the ensembles.

In complete contrast was Amelia Berry’s deliciously saucy Zerlina, bright-voiced, effervescent and coquettish – she looked, acted and sounded the part, conveying her cocktail-mix of innocence and worldly-wisdom with great élan throughout. As for Anna Leese’s Donna Elvira, her character portrayal seemed all-encompassing from her first entrance, supported by some magnificently-projected tones in her opening “A chi mi dice mai?”  – outwardly confident and resolute, she readily conveyed her fraught, equivocal emotional state of ambivalence towards her former lover with fine dramatic sense, at all times bestriding the production’s updated scenario stylishly and attractively.

Though lacking the presence, focus and magnetism of the Don and Leoporello, the men aligned with the women conveyed in each case something distinctive and characterful – in the dualistic role of the Commendatore (Donna Anna’s father) and the fateful guest at Giovanni’s party, Jud Arthur was an imposing presence, both physically and vocally – though the production did deprive his “transformed” self of much of its spiritual and moral resonance in both the “memorial” and the final scenes, he remained a force to be reckoned with, to his great credit. Jaewoo Kim’s Don Ottavio didn’t, I thought, quite replicate the success he had with the role in a previous (and rather more conventional) Wellington production, on which occasion he impressed with his ardent, mellifluous singing and  focused acting. Here, his elegance and characteristic steadfastness was somewhat lost in the melee of fast and furious interaction that marked this presentation (his beautiful aria, “Il mio tesoro” for example, was taken too quickly and breathlessly in this instance, for my liking).  To make matters more difficult, his earlier (though admittedly, very static and reflective) aria “Dalla sua pace” was cut this time round. It was only his discovery, on Giovanni’s confiscated i-phone, of his fiancee’s unfortunate dalliances with the Don, that refocused our attentions on him, in the throes of his and Donna Anna’s plight.

The other would-be husband, Zerlina’s Masetto, played by the engaging Robert Tucker, was, conversely, given an attenuated role – instead of being merely the “gulled paramour”, and then the leader of a group of vigilantes, intent on dealing a kind of “rough justice” to the Don, he and his cohorts actually usurped the function previously accorded to supernatural forces, by revenging themselves (and by extrapolation, society at large) on Don Giovanni. It was the “rationalist” solution to the problem posed the human intellect by any kind of unexplained intervention in worldly affairs (one, incidentally, posed also by Hamlet’s “ghost” and Macbeth’s “witches”) – and on that premise I thought here it worked brilliantly and effectively (despite my registering a little voice whispering inside me occasionally, “But is that REALLY how Don Giovanni ought to end?”).

The set was made of easily-shifted walled structures penetrated by doorways, with an upstairs room flighted by invisible stairs but featuring a window attenuated by scaffolding overlooking a courtyard, creating a kind of old-and-new urban ambience. The stage was lit for the most part dimly and atmospherically, giving a kind of louring, Dante-esque feeling of a small-hours “hell-on-earth” – perfect for the associations suggested by the Don’s penchant for darkness, deceit and despoilation.

No small part in all of this was, of course played by the sterling, vigorous and brilliant (if, at times, less lyrical at some cardinal points than I would have liked) work of Music Director Wyn Davies, who, I noticed, conducted that previous production of the opera in Wellington I’ve already alluded to), and the sparkling and sonorous playing of the accomplished Orchestra Wellington. Altogether, it made for a stimulating and though-provoking operatic night out in the capital’s wonderful St James’ Theatre.

Peter Mechen

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