Don Giovanni scores impressively in performance by Eternity Opera’s second cast

Don Giovanni by Mozart
Produced by Eternity Opera: producer Sandra Malesic
Conductor: Simon Romanos; stage director: Alex Galvin
(Sung in English translation by Edward Dent)

Sixteen-piece orchestra, led by Douglas Beilman
Cast in order of appearance: Nino Raphael, Orene Tiai, Amanda Barclay, Derek Miller, Chris Berentson, Hannah Catrin Jones, Emily Mwila, Charles Wilson

Hannah Playhouse (former Downstage Theatre)

Wednesday 24 August, 7:30 pm

When I arrived at the theatre at 7pm, I was surprised (and delighted) to find a box office queue out to the street. Though it proved to be largely because there was only one person handling both sales and the collection of already purchased tickets, it did show that the production had attracted high interest, and indeed by 7.30, there was scarcely an empty seat in the house.

This was the first evening at which a second cast was engaged – all except the Zerlina of the brilliantly cast Emily Mwila, who’d sung in the first cast too. The other singers this evening were rather the covers for the first cast, though each cast served as the chorus for the other; thus all were on stage for all performances.

It confirmed the success of the implicit intention expressed in the programme booklet: that here was a new opera company that sought to reach a wide audience with productions that were exciting and accessible to all, and reasonably priced.

The staging, costuming, orchestra
One can sense an audience that’s expecting to have a good time, almost through the sounds of their breathing; they were lively and responsive, ready to laugh generously at the least excuse; few operas offer as many opportunities as this. Which was a happy situation since the orchestra was tasked with creating a Mozart accompaniment from a very reduced score that was rather remote from the spirit and elegance of the original. (I could find no acknowledgement of the arranger in the programme; assume it was music director Romanos). Though the one-to-a-part strings presented a challenge in terms of orchestral warmth, I was glad that pairs of clarinets and bassoons were employed – instruments Mozart took special pleasure in. Any deficiencies in orchestral opulence were compensated by a sort of youthful energy and gusto, and also demonstrating sensitivity to the singers’ needs.

An imaginative stroke was to use guitarist Christopher Hill to accompany recitative, and to become the mandolin for Giovanni’s serenade.

Ignoring the music for a moment, the next thing was sets and costumes. The former were elementary, consisting of a dark back wall with door, and an upstairs balcony for Giovanni’s hurried first-scene exit from Donna Anna bedroom, and for Donna Elvira’s maid to be proxy-serenaded in the Act II costume swap between the Don and his servant; and dramatically useful curtains at the sides. The costumes on the other hand approached authenticity, sometimes richly, and so contributed hugely to the luminous hilarity of the staging that often depended on forced economies, near-misses of characterization.

The hand of an experienced stage director, Alex Galvin, was clear, often coming to the aid of singers whose vocal talents needed a certain support from meaningful acting and interaction.

Singers, seduction and swordsmanship
That opening scene is the devil though; virtuosic acting and singing is demanded straight away, and split-second timing. One hopes for a convincing sword fight; this consisted of just a couple of thrusts and the almost immediate dispatch of the Commendatore by Excelencia Don Giovanni (New Zealand’s weapons of choice these days are clearly not swords, noting the variety of devices employed in our daily murder cases).

It didn’t all work perfectly, for it’s so hard to fit words to action and the disposition of the singers. For example, Anna in the opening scene claims her intruder is threatening her, when in fact the Don by then is trying to escape; such things can often be explained – here for example, as part of Anna’s continuing effort to construct a rape scene for the sake of her reputation (though I don’t share that explanation of the situation).

Anna was sung by singing lawyer Amanda Barclay (who rather failed to explore all the remedies that might have been available to one schooled in the law); but here, her singing and acting were energetic and accurate and in her later appearances she confirmed her grasp of the complex nature of the role.

Her sexual abuser was Orene Tiai who has been singing successfully for a decade or so (I recall him early in his career, in the 2007 Tales of Hoffmann staged by Wellington G&S Light Opera). Larger than life, a warm, big voice, and acting that was perhaps just a little too plebeian for his role as local potentate-cum-rake.

Nino Raphael (NZSM alumnus) sang Leporello; he was dressed more like the Don’s gardener than as his man-servant; he is usually presented as the equivalent of Figaro: his master’s equal in all but wealth and power. His broad asides were in keeping with the more menial character, slightly lop-sided, and his acting, though lively enough, would better have fitted one of Shakespeare’s ‘mechanicals’. His singing matched that character well enough and later, his Catalogue aria appalled and amused cast and audience alike.

Donna Anna’s usually pathetically-portrayed lover, Don Ottavio, was sung by tenor Chris Berentson, another G&S stalwart. Though there was no announcement to the effect, I had to assume that he was struggling with a vocal problem as his voice was troubled; his ‘Dalla sua pace’ was omitted but he did sing, as well as could be expected given his vocal condition, the rather more taxing ‘Il mio tesoro’ in the second act, which is what Mozart substituted for a better tenor at a later, Viennese, performance. On the other hand, he acted the role with convincing, dead-pan, bloodless dignity, white costumed and every inch the honourable version of the aristocrat (in somewhat marked contrast to Don Giovanni).

Italian or English
And here I must confess to a little disappointment with the use of English (even in the version, now a little dated, by the distinguished Edward Dent). Any of the trained singers would have known all the main arias and ensemble pieces in Italian, and one felt a bit deprived without that aspect of a package of sound where words and music are so inseparable. But I know surtitles cost, and that for many of the audience, English would have helped. Diction naturally varied, but the English words were generally comprehensible.

Then there was the Commendatore of Derek Miller, an experienced singer, mainly in the Gilbert and Sullivan mold; again, there was some gap between his brief singing and acting – mainly dueling – and the timing and performance demands of his last few minutes on earth. He seemed at a loss in his confrontation with his daughter’s alleged rapist; here and at many places, more rehearsal with both stage and musical directors might have put the pieces together better (though I doubt that swordsmanship is a major part of singers’ training these days).

In that scene we encountered Donna Elvira, now, in contrast to Anna, fully dressed, wearing a rather gorgeous dark floral brocade gown. Hannah Catrin Jones, like the other Donna, revealed a good, well-projected voice, expressive and quietly passionate, but without a great deal of dynamic variety; later, in her intercession to defend Zerlina against the Don’s scoring another notch in his belt, she sang and acted with flair, only her top a little unrestrained. One looked forward to Elvira’s great aria ‘Mi tradi quell’ alma ingrata’ in the last scene, and it came off splendidly.

Defending Zerlina
That brings us to Zerlina, sung by Emily Mwila in both casts. She was the quintessentially flirtatious, spunky, all too ready to fall in with Giovanni’s plans that involved marriage and status and a life-time of faithful loving. And she’s not altogether pleased at Elvira’s interference. It was a high point of the show.

Throughout, the small orchestral ensemble does interesting and illuminating things, warmly supportive, and it was good to be able to pick them up at times, such as the cello solo after Zerlina’s ‘Batti, batti o bel Masetto’, and following woodwind echoing.

Zerlina’s lover was sung by Charles Wilson and he too was well cast, acting almost too well the humourless, powerless, put-upon, about-to-be-betrayed fiancé. For some reason Masetto doesn’t engage our sympathy much, and Wilson manfully (shall we say) exploited his role as the ritually laughed-at cuckold, a stock character from Greek and Roman comedy, and the Renaissance.

The final scene can be one of the great operatic experiences, but a lot of elements need to be right. A carefully crafted Giovanni/Leporello relationship is vital, but the rustic character of the servant somewhat militated against the suppressed hilarity and the conflicted feelings we have for the Don’s inevitable fate.

There’s only a limited role for the small, effective chorus. But a very important role for orchestra. As I note above, there was much to be grateful for, but the balance of tone and style between limited strings and winds suggested that singers and players could have benefitted from more rehearsal together. More time was needed for the integrity of the orchestral reduction to be properly absorbed by both.

However, let me not be misunderstood. An enterprise like this must be enthusiastically welcomed; it provides a little of the vital intermediate stage to a professional career that is almost entirely absent in New Zealand. One keeps hoping that one of the groups that arise from time to time will survive and flourish, and become professional, just as the De La Tour Opera of the 1980s turned into Wellington City Opera.

Onwards towards professional opera again
For Wellington now has no professional opera company. In spite of initial assurances of even-handed division of work between Auckland and Wellington when the two companies merged in 2000, Auckland has slowly absorbed everything, leaving Wellington as mere recipient of New Zealand Opera ‘touring performances’.

Let me recall that through its some 16 years of life Wellington City Opera staged about 34 productions, more than any other city over that period, and about the same number that New Zealand Opera has staged in Wellington in the past 16 years.

Over the past decade or so many groups have staged opera in Wellington; they come and they go. Essential to survival are determined management with the personal skills capable of winning funding, and pursuing sensible, adventurous artistic aims. Eternity Opera could be it. At least their name and this initial performance offers a pointer.

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