Opera with energy and excitement – Eternity Opera Company’s Don Giovanni at the Hannah Playhouse

Eternity Opera Company presents:

Music by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Libretto by Lorenzo da Ponte
English Translation by Edward Dent

Alex Galvin (director)
Simon Romanos (music director)
Sandra Malesic (producer)

Cast: Leporello – Jamie Henare
        Don Giovanni – Mark Bobb
        Donna Anna – Barbara Paterson
        Commendatore/Statue – Roger Wilson
        Don Ottavio – Jamie Young
        Donna Elvira – Kate Lineham
        Zerlina – Emily Mwila
        Masetto – Laurence Walls
        Dancers and Chorus: Taryn Baxter, Minto Fung, India Loveday
        Sarah Munn, Jessica Short

Orchestra: Douglas Beilman (concertmaster), Anna van der Zee (violin)
                Victoria Janëcke (viola), Inbal Meggido (‘cello)
                Victoria Jones (double-bass), Timothy Jenkin (flute)
                Merran Cooke (oboe), Mark Cookson, Moira Hurst (clarinet)
                Leni Mäckle, Peter Lamb (bassoon), Ed Allen (horn)
                Christopher Hill (guitars), Josh Crump (trumpet)
                Andrew Yorkstone, Mark Davey (alto trombone)
                Hannah Neman (timpani)
Hannah Playhouse, Wellington

20-27th August, 2016

The name “Eternity Opera” is itself a splendid gauntlet-brandishing gesture, an assertive declaration of overall purpose and intent, reinforced by a note in the programme for Saturday night’s opening of the new company’s season of “Mozart’s “Don Giovanni”–  firstly, “to stage productions that are exciting and accessible to anyone” and, just as importantly, “to support the many talented singers and musicians in the Wellington region”. Judging by what the opening night’s performance managed to achieve in terms of immediacy and intensity, there was plenty of excitement and involvement for the audience in Wellington’s Hannah Playhouse, strange though it might have seemed for those of us familiar with the venue’s history to see opera performed there.

Whatever misgivings one might have felt beforehand along these lines, particularly regarding the venue’s relatively limited performing space for both singers and orchestra, were immediately blown away by the impact of the Overture’s opening.  The immediacy of it all seemed to me to bring one far closer to the “inner life” of the music than the somewhat distanced effect of having the performers on a vast stage and in a sunken orchestral pit. Instead, here they all were, almost, it seemed, within touching distance! The effect was, I thought, electric and energising, right throughout the work.

With the Overture at the beginning, one relished the instrumental playing’s focus, energy and infinite variety of colour and nuance. It all “clicked” as, amid the gloom, my eyes began to “pick out”, one by one, the faces of some of Wellington’s top musicians. Conductor Simon Romanos readily found the “tempo giusto” for both the music’s monumental opening and the allegro which followed, pointing up for us the opera’s Janus-faced aspect – what the composer himself styled as both a “dramma giocoso” (a mix of drama and comedy), and, in his own catalogue of compositions, an “opera buffa” (comic opera).

The performance used Edward Dent’s English translation, which came across well in the theatre’s intimate spaces. First to appear on the stage was Leporello, the Don’s servant, sung by Jamie Henare with wry, Sancho Panza-like humour throughout, understandably taking a little time to warm up his voice’s energies in this opening scene, but, a little later, making the most of the famous “Catalogue aria”, singing and characterising the words with obvious relish. Servant and master played off one another along the way with plenty of complementary panache and mordant wit, a highlight being Leporello’s “Mr.Bean cut down to size” transformation at the hands of his master, when being disguised as the latter for further nefarious purposes.

As for the redoubtable Don Giovanni himself, Mark Bobb made a personable hero/villain, conveying both the energy and underlying world-weariness of the habitual seducer – reflected, of course in the character’s almost total lack of success with the sexual conquests he pursued in the course of the opera. While his voice had its limits, such as insufficient “top” with which to clinch the hedonistic splendour of his “Champagne aria”,  his singing early on in the piece wasn’t without charm, in the first act convincingly and seductively all but completely breaking down the defences of the peasant girl, Zerlina, about to be married, and, in the second act, mockingly serenading firstly his jilted lover Donna Elvira, who’d come to town in pursuit of him and to make life as difficult for him as possible, and then switching his focus to her maid.

Sparks were effectively struck by Giovanni’s encounters with the Commendatore, the father of Donna Anna, the latter another of the Don’s would-be conquests. Both the first-act duel between the two men, and the return of the murdered Commendatore as a statue to take revenge on the reprobate worked up plenty of dramatic and musical steam. Throughout these escapades, Mark Bobb’s portrayal veered convincingly between bravado and dissipation, strongly conveying at the end both his character’s defiance of heavenly retribution for his crimes of excess, and his grim acceptance of the fate in store for him.

Roger Wilson brought sonorous authority to the Commendatore/Statue role, using his powerful voice to great effect, though thanks to his costume his “Statue” persona for me more readily evoked “Darth Vader” (of “Star Wars” fame) than anything else. Nevertheless, he and Giovanni really made something of their supernatural confrontation, building up to the “mark of doom” moment when their hands clasped, here most excitingly realized.

Don Giovanni is certainly an opera that puts relationships to the sword, as witness the ardent but largely ineffectual peregrinations of Don Ottavio, who’s Donna Anna’s betrothed and who seemed destined to remain so indefinitely, on account of his beloved’s grief at her father’s death. Jamie Young enacted what can be a thankless part, with plenty of palpable feeling for his sweetheart, best expressed in recitative, dialogue and ensembles set-pieces rather than in full-scale arias, where his voice seemed to lose its quality under pressure.

Another victim was Masetto, one of the villagers, along with his to-be-partner, Zerlina, whom the Don had already lost no time in making the focus of his attentions for a while. I always saw (or heard) Mazetto as someone essentially rustic, a “salt-of-the-earth” character with a few rough edges, which the elegant, modulated portrayal of Laurence Walls seemed to have knocked off and smoothed around, making the character appear in manner and voice more poet and philosopher than country boy. Still, his interaction with Emily Mwila’s Zerlina, his sweetheart, had a lovely innocence, beautifully delineated during her singing of “Batti, batti” (Beat me, beat me), by way of winning back his ruffled affections in the wake of her “dalliance” with the Don.

Turning to the women, the first we encountered was Donna Anna, daughter of the Commendatore and betrothed of Don Ottavio, but who had somehow aroused the interest and attentions of Giovanni – Barbara Paterson’s portrayal of Anna captured, I think, much of the character’s ambivalence regarding her attempted seduction by the Don, thus “awakening” aspects of her as a woman which the dutiful Don Ottavio might well have left undisturbed. A certain “edge” to her voice sharpened the vibrant intensity of her character, one which became almost too incisive at certain pressure-points. Still, there was no doubting her dramatic commitment and the willingness to interact with others – a well-honed sequence was the “vengeance” vow demanded of Ottavio by Anna immediately following the discovery of her murdered father’s corpse, Barbara Paterson and Jamie Young between them generating and conveying plenty of force and weight.

By contrast Giovanni’s rejected sweetheart, Donna Elvira, beautifully realized by Kate Lineham, mingled intensity of feeling for her treacherous ex-lover with anger, scorn, and despair on one hand and frustration and determination on the other. Hers was a voice that, apart from the occasional moment of pressure affecting the singing line’s trajectory, filled out the melodic contours with such beauty as to produce moments of glowing warm amidst the gloom. Her Elvira was, it seemed, a character ready to forgive and reconcile with any wrongs done by others, imparting a human dimension to the drama whose privations engaged our sympathy.

Where both Anna and Elvira were sophisticated society women, the third female role was Zerlina, whose delightfully coquettish portrayal by Emily Mwila was one of the show’s highlights, and who exuded both rude, rustic health and artfully-wound persuasive charm right from the start. Helped by a beautifully-modulated and flexibly adept voice she “owned” both music and character and brought them together with an ease and fluency that suggested here was a “natural” at what she did on the musical stage – I’ve already mentioned her winning “Batti batti” in tandem with Laurence Walls’ Masetto, and altogether enjoyed her work immensely.

Though the set couldn’t be described in any way as “lavish”, its darkness matched the atmosphere of most of the opera’s scenes, with the exception, perhaps of the first garden scene, during which Zerlina and Mazettto were to be married. The remainder framed the spherical settings with black curtains, underlining the darkness at the centre of the Don’s self-destructive impulses and the despair/fear felt by those attempting to keep in tabs on him. Costumes were more-than-usually striking against the black  backdrops, generally mirroring what we were able to glean of each character, with a few unexpected stimulations, such as the space-age statue in the cemetery scene!

In terms of purpose and intent one could safely declare that this production of “Don Giovanni” did excellently well, making what I thought were all the right gestures for encouragement of further production activities, given that, unlike the way pursued by the opera’s eponymous hero, the road to hell is paved with good intentions, for fledgling artistic ventures. One can only wish director Alex Galvin and his company every success, while at the same time encouraging enthusiasts and interested parties to get behind them with all the support an artistic community sympathetic to such a venture can muster.

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