NZ Opera’s “Don Giovanni” in Wellington enthralling

New Zealand Opera presents:
Mozart: Don Giovanni

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

Chapman Tripp Opera Chorus, Orchestra Wellington,
Conductor: Wyn Davies,

Director: Sara Brodie

St. James Theatre

Saturday, 11 October 2014


Much has been written about what is probably the world’s most continuously
successful opera: Mozart’s Don Giovanni. That it continues to draw in the crowds despite the misgivings of various ‘experts’ over the years is tribute not only to the variety and virtuosity of the music, but also to the characterisation in Lorenzo da Ponte’s sometimes denigrated libretto.

This opera is notable for many things; the complexity of the vocal writing is certainly one of them. Another is the complexity of the plot. All the characters contrive to find themselves in bad situations from which they manage to escape, just in time. Except for Don Giovanni at the end; his final come-uppance was delivered in this version with a dramatic twist that was in accord with the contemporary production.

There were numbers of features in Wyn Davies’s conducting, Sara Brodie’s production and John Verryt’s sets that made this production of Mozart’s great opera stand out from others one has seen. In no particular order, features were: plenty of fast-paced action and music, the use of the revolving stage making for quick changes of the sets, the 21st century setting, the contemporary English of the surtitles (e.g. ‘creep’ to describe the Don), and the uniformly high standard of the lead characters’ singing and acting.

Setting the story amongst shabby ‘low life’ gathering places rather than in palazzos and piazzas was a surprise. The Hotel Commendatore, and the Hotel Ottavio, plus the Libertino’s ‘Nite Club’ allowed for much comic business, particularly the latter venue. The use of cellphones, tablet, and a modern Red Cross-style rescue team were ‘verismo’ features, 2000s-style.

These were hardly incongruities in terms of the setting; what was incongruous was having the cast doing contemporary formless slow jogging about to Mozart’s delicious music designed for quite different dances; this left me feeling disappointed and deprived – though it is hard to know what else could be done, given the contemporary setting. The pole-dancers in the background were no more or less incongruous.

The well-produced programme featured not one, not two, but three excellent essays, by John Drummond, Nicholas Reid and John Pattinson. Another commendable feature of this production was that apart from two very fine singers from overseas (Mark Stone from UK and Warwick Fyfe from Australia), the principals were all New Zealanders.

Those tremendous, portentous opening chords from the orchestra set the scene for a dramatic evening of opera. From the overture onwards, the orchestra played with great verve and panache, always ‘on the ball’, every instrument making a marked contribution to the whole.

The curtains opened on a dark set revealing the night club, a homeless man endeavouring to bed down in its vicinity (this on the day following World Homeless Day), and the brusque treatment he received – these all came to mean something in the ensuing drama.

The first character to reveal himself is Leporello, with Warwick Fyfe in fine voice, and with much nuance in his acting. Under Sara Brodie’s direction he was not so much of a buffoon as in some productions. His ‘Catalogue Aria’ in Act I was brilliantly performed. The catalogue was held on his cellphone, which he manipulated with sweeping gestures (a little impractical, I would have thought, to have a document with 2065 entries, on a tiny device!). Only in the final scene, his contribution could not be clearly heard.

The appearance of the Don introduced us to the splendid singing of Mark Stone. These demanding roles were well under the belts of the two gentlemen; Mark Stone was very much the persuasive seducer, his voice ready for the variety of timbres demanded by the different aspects of his character portrayed in the company of his would-be conquests, of his denouncers and of his servant. His big arias were sung with lots of swagger where appropriate, and sure vocal technique – masterful. The delightful Canzonetta with mandolin, ‘Deh vieni alla finestra’ was ingratiating and sung with great variation and subtlety in the voice.

Lisa Harper-Brown’s Donna Anna was at first rather overwhelmed by the orchestra, from where I sat. Her voice was at times rather shrill; I agree with William Dart’s comment in his New Zealand Herald review that she ‘showed some vocal straining’; words were not clear and her acting was stiff much of the time. This could be taken as characterisation of a woman whose father had just been murdered, but I wasn’t persuaded. I found her costume rather unbecoming for a tall woman. However, her final recitative and aria ‘Crudele…’ sung to Don Ottavio was very richly rendered.

Anna Leese’s Donna Elvira was wonderful – relaxed, her voice and words always clear, her acting natural and effective, she fulfilled the role superbly. Her entire portrayal was very strong and dramatic, commanding in both acting and singing, and her final aria was fabulous. As the Commendatore (a role he also played in Wellington City Opera’s 1987 production) Jud Arthur has the right bearing, and certainly the right voice: a deep, resonant bass, which he uses superbly well.

Don Ottavio (Jaewoo Kim) is criticised for being wooden, or not an adequate character, or other such phrases. However, he is written as rather a ‘wet’, and his apparently unsympathetic attitude probably stems from the fact that as a nobleman he could not believe that another nobleman would perpetrate such an act as murder. Kim has a lovely voice, and I did not find him inadequate, given the character he was portraying. He and Lisa Harper-Brown evoked the shocked, grieving couple very well. His ‘Il mio tesoro’ was a pleasure to hear.

Amelia Berry (Zerlina) had a few rather uncertain notes early on, but she soon settled down, and revealed not only splendid tone with a variety of timbre, but also her acting and characterisation were uniformly very good; she was really ‘in’ the role. Her singing blossomed, not the least when she produced a magical high C at one point. Her ‘Batti, batti’ was ingratiatingly lovely. Robert Tucker’s Massetto was a rather sturdy, stodgy character, but given to some fine acting and singing, though his voice was not always strong.

Of the many familiar arias in the opera, the singers gave great account, on the whole.I found the Don’s ‘Là ci darem la mano’ a little too slick. Maybe this was to depict his nature (and experience!), but would it persuade a young woman?

As if Mozart did not produce wonderful orchestral sounds and textures, superb solos and telling recitatives, where he excels in this opera is in the ensembles. The first quartet was just splendid, with the variety of emotions between the characters portrayed with sensitivity and skill by the singers. The trio early in Act II was another gorgeous ensemble; there were particularly lovely nuances in Anna Leese’s singing. The sextet in the middle of the Act was wonderfully well done, the drama conveyed through each part; the brilliance of Mozart’s writing here is quite breathtaking.

Summing up, it must said the production made less of the comic and more of the dark, even gothic and tragic in the story than do some productions. There was lots of loud and not a great deal of soft. However, characters were brilliantly portrayed, while the action and stage business kept things interesting. The chorus, like the orchestra, were uniformly first-class, and had plenty of stage business and acting, always carried out convincingly. All involved deserve hearty congratulations.

Among the many notable production touches were the scaffold beside the Hotel Ottavio, that enabled the Don to climb close to Donna Elvira’s window; the sight of the maid through the window as she went through Elvira’s bag, finally removing money.

The nice connection between the homeless man and the Commendatore should not be given away in a review, nor should the dramatic stunt that despatches the Don. The ending sextet was a commendable conclusion, following which the audience erupted in enthusiastic response, thoroughly deserved. We were privileged to attend such an enthralling, high quality production of Mozart’s great work.

Further performances are on 16 and 18 October at 7.30pm.

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