The Don rides out again – Eternity Opera’s “other” Don Giovanni

Don Giovanni – Eternity Opera’s “understudy” cast

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)

Leoporello – Nino Raphael
Don Giovanni – Orene Tiai
Donna Anna – Amanda Barclay
Commendatore/Statue – Derek Miller
Don Ottavio – Chris Berentson
Donna Elvira – Hannah Catrin Jones
Zerlina – Emily Mwila
Masetto – Charles Wilson

Dancers and Chorus: Taryn Baxter, Minto Fung,
India Loveday, Sarah Munn, Jessica Short

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),
Ed Allen (horn),
 Christopher Hill (guitars),
Josh Crump (trumpet),
Andrew Yorkstone, Mark Davey (alto trombone),
Hannah Neman (timpani)

Hannah Playhouse, Wellington

Wednesday 24th August, 2016

What a delight to be able to enjoy, within the space of a few days, a second, almost entirely different cast performing the same operatic production! Eternity Opera’s Don Giovanni had opened on the previous Saturday (reviewed by Middle C, below) and this was the single chance for the “understudy cast” members to demonstrate what they could do in public – with the exception of the Zerlina, Emily Mwila, for whom there was no understudy, and whose performance was a great pleasure to see again, in any case!). So this evening’s performance was a tantalizing mixture of deja vu with fresh, new faces and voices and characterizations, as interesting to compare with the “other” as to enjoy for its own qualities. I confess that I’m inclined towards the latter approach, though I may let the occasional counter-impression slip through the net by accident, as it were.

Firstly, though, there were the constants between the two performances – the joy of listening all over again, for example, to Mozart’s score brought forward and sharpened in focus as conducted with great energy and commitment by Simon Romanos, and expertly played by the first-rate ensemble. I was seated in a different place in the auditorium this time round, in front of the singers and further away from the orchestra, and didn’t get the “edge” of the instrumental attack to the same extent, the music seeming to having a more rounded and integrated-with-the-stage sound. I noticed a couple of dropped notes in places in the solo lines, which could be put down to fatigue, but registered just as strongly the support the players gave to one another and to the singers – at the risk of singling out certain players, I delighted all over again, for example, in cellist Inbal Meggido’s obbligato accompaniment of Zerlina’s “You are cruel, dear Masetto” (“Batti, batti o bel Masetto”), the playing at once so deliciously insouciant and having great tensile strength, signifying the encirclement and breaking-down of her jealous lover Masetto’s defences with her abundant, coquettish charms.

Of course that was just one of many felicitous detailings which we were able to enjoy, aspects of the sterling work done by the entire quintet of string players throughout. Another delight was guitarist Christopher Hill’s accompanying of Don Giovanni’s serenade to Donna Elvira, following on of course from the player’s unfailingly sensitive recitative accompaniments, which I thought worked surprisingly well. The various winds, including the horn, aided and abetted the singing throughout with gorgeously-phrased melodic introductions, counterpoints and resonating harmonies – and I loved the impact made by the introduction of those extra brass and the timpani for the Second Act’s “statue” scenes.

I was grateful to director Alex Galvin for his decision to present the show in period costume and with stage settings that reflected the composer’s time, enabling the full flavour of Mozart’s and his librettist Lorenzo da Ponte’s partnership to play freely in a more-or-less “intended” context. The use of English greatly benefitted these interactions, the point as I saw it being not to “update” but to illuminate the story. I thought Galvin’s conception of the staging nicely took the wind out of the sails of those who ceaselessly contend that opera needs to be contextually “modernised” for today’s audiences to “connect” with. And the response of a young friend of mine who also saw the show on this particular evening was, at the end, to excitedly ask when the company would be staging its next production!

Of course, reproducing what one imagines would be anything like the settings and atmospheres prevalent in the composer’s own era is an art-form in itself, even using the libretto’s detailing as source-material. I liked very much Alex Galvin’s opting for black backdrops which couched the production in more-or-less constant darkness, one that for most of the time connects with the story’s time-of-day frame and its rather Goya-esque settings. Having said that, I thought the opening needed to be made even darker, the characters (Leporello, Donna Anna and Don Giovanni) too viscerally identifiable during the latter’s attempted violation of Donna Anna. Conversely, there were a couple of moments where the oppressiveness of the gloom might for the sake of theatrical contrast have been momentarily brightened, such as the Act One scene where Zerlina and Masetto are celebrating their marriage with their friends, and even, a little later, the meeting of Don Giovanni with Donna Anna, the woman he had attempted to seduce the night before. However, the production’s instinctive and on-going evocation of darkness served the story and its various themes well.

What colour we experienced came largely from the costumes which in nearly all cases in both performances eloquently “spoke” for their particular characters, with only the first-choice Donna Elvira (Kate Lineham) being, I thought, made to look a touch too matronly. The rest of both casts inhabited their various garments readily and easefully, allowing the essential personalities to shine forth – perhaps in the cemetery scene, the “Darth Vader” (from the film “Star Wars”) aspect of the Statue, a memorial to the Commendatore, slain by Don Giovanni, looked somewhat incongruous at first, but the apparition’s supernatural aspect logically gave its appearance a kind of “carte blanche”, stimulating, to say the least!

So, what of the cast this time round? Away from the “comparison” aspect of putting the two ensembles together role-by-role, I would say that each of the singers had something unique and tantalizing to bring to their individual parts. In some cases stage deportments and voices took time to warm up and properly activate, but in almost every case were firing and exuding energies and resonances by the opera’s end. A case in point was Giovanni’s servant Leporello, portrayed by Nino Raphael, whom I thought somewhat indolent, both physically and vocally, at the start, adopting a passive, arguably too nonchalant-sounding aspect when viewing his master’s would-be amorous exploits, and in doing so for me making his character seem uninvolved almost to a fault. As the story proceeded he seemed to gradually wake his Leporello up and bring out a sparkle more readily in both word and deed, until by the end he seemed in much greater possession of the part, or vice versa.

Something of the same languidity hung about the well-developed shoulders of the Don, Orene Tiai – his aspect seemed more happy-go-lucky than intense and predatory, an “easy-come-easy-go” attitude which didn’t develop any pronounced “edge” normally associated with the character’s efforts to pursue sexual adventures. He did at certain times convey a mode which suggested he was accustomed to getting his way, but he rarely gave a sense of having that unquenchable appetite for women which he admitted to at one point in the opera, despite the impressive statistics proffered by Leporello concerning his master’s amorous activities. His voice was by turns charming and sonorous in his set numbers, more alive and purposeful there, I thought, than in recitative, where he tended to “sing-song” rather than “point” his delivery of the lines. Still, he did well to move the action on at the beginning when “confronted” by the Commendatore, the latter either missing or failing to properly emphasise a movement or gestural cue or a vocal challenge to fight, so that the Don had to propel the action on unprovoked – or so it seemed!

The great ensemble finale at the end of the first act was a true galvanising point, which seemed from the new act’s beginning to give everybody’s stage personae more intensity – a kind of edge was raised which, in the Don’s case, carried him on something of a tide towards his confrontation with the Statue in the cemetery and fuelled their final encounter at the conclusion of Giovanni’s supper scene. Derek Miller’s Statue seemed fortunately to be able to generate more heft and power than he managed to find as the ineffectual Commendatore, which set the scene for the Don’s final despatch at the hands of a group of infernal cohorts of Hell – all women, incidentally, which seemed properly meet and just.

As for the women who were the objects of the Don’s somewhat haphazard attentions at various stages of the evening, all conveyed a distinction of character which enhanced their place in the drama – Amanda Barclay’s Donna Anna fiery and volatile, Hannah Catrin Jones’s Donna Elvira upright and dignified, mingling constraint with moments of deeply-felt grief and desire, and Emily Mwila’s Zerlina, pert, vivacious and totally winning. I did feel a little startled at the immediacy of some of Amanda Barclay’s expressions of blood-lust made in her “vengeance” duet with her hapless fiancee, Don Ottavio, but otherwise responded to her obvious involvment with the character and the story. Hannah Catrin Jones, in comparison, was more controlled in both deportment and vocal expression, wanting, I thought something of Amanda Barclay’s impulsiveness and spontaneity in her expression, but not too much! Both singers gave pleasure when shaping their longer lyrical lines with beauty and sensitivity, and not having their voices subjected to pressure from the strictures of the composer’s more intensely-wrought vocal figurations.

Victims, too, by proxy, of the Don’s predatory activities, were the men involved with these women, such as Don Ottavio, who seemed here, to all intents and purposes, practically neutered by Giovanni’s near-violation of his fiancee, Donna Anna. At the best of times, long on declamatory intent and short on effective action, Don Ottavio (sung by Chris Berentson) made a noble-hearted and dutiful, if somewhat emasculated impression as per his character. Berentson’s acting was consistent and reliable, as was his ensemble singing, but his voice needed more heft and juice when heard solo. Da Ponte and Mozart certainly got it right in ascribing desperate marriage-delaying tactics to poor Donna Anna, faced with the deadening prospect of eking out her days with a dutiful but lacklustre husband.

On the other hand, Masetto (here portrayed by Charles Wilson), the peasant lad betrothed to the pretty and vivacious Zerlina, whom the Don took a shine to in the first act, readily displayed his displeasure at the situation, railing against his partner’s coquettish behaviour and causing her great remorse, leading to some delicious interplay between the characters as Zerlina exerted her well-nigh irresistible charms upon her aggrieved sweetheart, and achieved the desired result. Though arguably not appearing robust and rustic enough for a peasant lad, Wilson’s sense of character made it work, singing and acting alongside Emily Mwila’s Zerlina with heartwarming involvement.

In both productions the chorus work sparkled (in the wedding and festive scenes) and resounded with doom-laden tones (in the opera’s final scene, where the Don is dragged down to Hell by the femme fatales turned demons!). Whatever the scene the deployment of people on stage created atmosphere, colour and excitement, and advanced the drama.

While the performance by-and-large confirmed the choice of principals for the “first” cast the performances described here enshrined for the most part viable alternatives whose realisation worked in each case, enabling the show “to go on”. I thought doing both an excellent idea, especially considering the number of people I saw who, like myself had attended the other production as well.

One is left with more-than-ample feelings of enthusiasm and goodwill towards the company and its director, with a hopeful view to there being further operatic worlds for them to conquer – on its own, the audience attendance and its response to the performances would have been heartening. The production certainly demonstrated that, if there’s sufficient energy, commitment and feeling for the art-form, it’s so very worthwhile and rewarding to have opera done in almost any performance scale, if the resources to do so can be found.

I can only echo the sentiments expressed in the final sentence of my review of the “first cast” performance in wishing Alex Galvin and Eternity Opera every future success.

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