Supported by generous help from the Turnovsky Endowment Trust

Mozart’s Don Giovanni from the new Wellington Opera Company – a promising beginning

By , 20/04/2021

Wellington Opera presents
MOZART – DON GIOVANNI (dramma giocoso)
(libretto by Lorenzo da Ponte)

Cast:   Christian Thurston  (Don Giovanni)
James Ioelu  (Leoporello)
Amelia Berry  (Donna Anna)
Paul Whelan  (The Commendatore)
Oliver Sewell  (Don Ottavio)
Amanda Atlas (Donna Elvira)
Natasha Wilson  (Zerlina)
Joel Amosa  (Masetto)

Wellington Opera Chorus and Orchestra
Music Director –  Matthew Ross
Director – Sara Brodie
Assistant Director – Matthew Kereama
Production Designer – Meg Rollandi
Lighting Designer – Jo Kilgour

Wellington Opera House
Tuesday 20th April, 2021

(to Saturday 24th April 2021 7:30pm)

How refreshing to read in the programme accompanying Wellington Opera’s “Don Giovanni” an appreciation of Mozart’s and his librettist Lorenzo da Ponte’s opera from the Governor-General, Dame Patsy Reddy, thus: “Quite apart from the exquisite pleasures of Mozart’s score, it (the opera) offers a timeless plot line that will resonate with audiences in the “Me Too” era.” For me, that sums up in a nutshell the potential for a classic work born in this case of what historians have termed “The Enlightenment” to express a viewpoint relating to sexual mores in society whose judgement is unequivocally delivered – the condemnation and downfall of a sexual predator.

After I’d read the original “Stuff” article that appeared, one purporting to be a review of the Company’s opening night’s performance, but morphing into a “woke-rant” condemning any age-old artistic portrayals of what’s seen as interaction of male dominance and female submission, my first reaction was along the disturbed lines of “Look out, Classics! – THEY’RE coming for you!” One doesn’t wish to demonise any feminist viewpoint thus – but to gratuitously offload coals of fire upon the heads of the world’s classics holus-bolus is to beg the question of why things are portrayed the way they are in the first place in these works, and how “workings-out” of what people do in human interactive terms can counter and triumph over many such exploitative attitudes. Mozart and da Ponte obviously understood human nature and its resultant behaviours, and in this case responded to the excesses of the opera’s eponymous miscreant in delivering an archetypal “come-uppance” to him at the end.

I once saw a production of “The Don” where the ghostly avenging “Statue” of the man Giovanni had earlier killed in a duel turned out actually to be the peasant lad Masetto in disguise, wanting revenge for Giovanni’s attempted seduction of his girlfriend. After reducing Giovanni to submission, the “stone” figure threw off his disguise and summarily despatched him. It all became something in the manner of a “shabby little shocker” involving nothing more than rough justice, with no overtones of the archetypal or supernatural or any kind of higher moral force at work.  I felt suitably cheated on that occasion, the “rustic revenge” conclusion having nothing uplifting or awe-inspiring about it, no “outward sign of inner expiation”, change or cleansing. Interestingly, Mozart’s “epilogue”, in which the characters whose lives were so intertwined with the Don’s tell one another their plans and deliver a vocal “coup de grace” to the departed libertine, was performed at the premiere in Prague, but omitted when the opera was restaged by the composer in Vienna, and not reintroduced until the early part of the 20thCentury – so the opera’s ending, with Giovanni dragged down to Hell, as depicted in the film “Amadeus”, was the standard for many years!

That “resonance” which Dame Patsy Reddy mentioned regarding recent “Me Too” revelations has already coloured a number of manifestations of this opera worldwide, among them the subject of an in-depth review of a UK production in North London from 2017 which I chanced upon, one staged by an all-female creative team, with modern dress and up-dated surtitles, giving a definite contemporary feel to the goings-on. The characterisations seemed to ring true with the women Giovanni tried to seduce in the opera, with the noblewoman Donna Anna and (eventually) the peasant girl Zerlina portrayed as strong and independent, while the once-abandoned Donna Elvira remaining seriously conflicted to the end by her ex-lover. And there were echoes of Hollywood impresario Harvey Weinstein’s recently-exposed crimes and the initial disbelief at the allegations made by various women concerning his sexual abuse of them, in Donna Anna’s fiancée Don Ottavio’s similar doubts uttered upon first hearing of Giovanni’s transgressions.

Fast forward to 2021 and a girdle about the earth’s distance to Wellington Opera, a recently-formed Trust here in the capital, and presently making the most of the Covid travel restrictions resulting in the availability of so many able home-grown singers for this, the Trust’s first production.  Having enjoyed a number of director Sara Brodie’s productions in the past, I was brimful with expectation, firstly all ears for the Overture, here occasioning a “sneak preview” of the opera’s inaugural crime, the Don’s invasion of the beautiful Donna Anna’s bedroom via a ladder. I thought Matthew Ross’s direction of the music a shade short-breathed with the very opening chords, terse and contained, not conveying to me the sheer drama of those opening sounds, and being too intent with forward movement. smart and snappy, which mode of course does come into its own with the allegro – no qualms about Ross’s urgency and the terrific orchestral response, there!

As the curtain opened again, there was Leoporello, waiting for his master – with an un-nervingly spectral figure gazing at him from further away for a few seconds, before leaving just as mysteriously as he had come. James Ioelu’s Leoporello had the common touch, the voice a roughish edge, the body language casual and footloose. His master, the Don, was all elegance by comparison, Christian Thurston laid-back and casual with his movements, almost an insouciance, but one masking an underlying focus of pursuit and would-be capture. My companion for the evening being of a younger generation, afterwards compared the Don’s “manner” to a Swedish singer she knew of, one Günther, having, she said, a similar kind of euro-trash party energy, complete with pout, open shirt and eye-liner! (on the strength of that, I think Middle C will keep her on……..)

Paul Whelan seemed luxury casting as the Commendatore, Donna Anna’s father, though I actually found him more effective in the “Stone Guest” Scene than here, where I thought his characterisation was, like so many I’ve seen in this opera, a tad too elderly and lacking in real energy in the fight (the ensemble also got a bit “out” necessitating some “catch-up” singing) – surely the Commendatore would be only in his forties and therefore still a dangerous adversary, hence Giovanni’s killing of him to save his own skin! The fight certainly didn’t take enough cues from the slashing, whirling music Mozart provided, though the Commendatore’s actual despatch, by both the Don and Leoporello with a knife, was convincing enough.

Donna Anna’s discovery of her father’s body gave Amelia Berry’s voice the chance to shine – both she and her fiancée, Don Ottavio (a vocally steadfast Oliver Sewell) characterised the confused jumble of emotions beautifully, moving, separately and together, from despair to tenderness to vengeful attack – though their interaction was more static in movement than I would have expected, things like the oath sworn together on the Commendatore’s sword gave the scene both great gravitas and high drama.

After Giovanni affably dismissed Leoporello’s “character references” of his master as of little consequence, the sudden ”scent of a woman” heralded the arrival on the scene of Donna Elvira and her maid (the latter a non-singing role). I couldn’t help but enjoy Amanda Atlas’s extremely gutsy (if in places squally) A Chi mi dice mai, as it captured the character’s agitated,  unfettered feelings, something which carried right through her exchanges for the rest of the evening with the hapless Don, who lost no time here in volunteering Leoporello as a source of further information for her before making himself scarce!

James Ioelu made the most of his opportunities with the notorious “Catalogue Aria”, in which Leoporello presents a list to Elvira of the Don’s female conquests – the most interesting reaction I’ve seen to this from any Elvira (not here) was one during which the latter ridiculed the “list”, thus consigning the activity’s significance to the realms of adolescent train-spotting, or teenaged autograph-collecting!  Here it began as something almost voyeuristic on Leoporello’s part, before burgeoning into the public realm with an enlarged version of the list lowered from above as a banner for all the world to “tut-tut” over, presumably accompanied by some local (though not recent!) conjecture and embarrassment on the part of certain individuals (including, perhaps, a pregnant young woman who appeared from nowhere straight afterwards and disappeared as quickly as she had come, amongst the others….. earlier Leoporello had gotten “carried away” with some mock-gratuitous characterisations  pertaining to “the tall ones” on the list (È la grande maestosa!), before being “snapped out of it” by Elvira in no uncertain terms!

Came the “peasant wedding” scene, and the chance for us to be introduced to the “common folk” couple Zerlina (Natasha Wilson), and Masetto (Joel Amosa), each endowed with engaging voices and winning stage presences, establishing their characters with great elan! I thought the Don’s laid-back manoeuverings regarding  Masetto didn’t sufficiently generate menace and tension between them to motivate the latter’s reaction as per his Ho capito, Signor si aria, though with his fiancée Zerlina, the sparks certainly flew, giving the couple’s subsequent reconciliation scenes plenty of dramatic (and in places suggestive) interest.

From that point, with the dramatis personae introduced, the story’s often vertiginous events whirled us along, with the Don entirely failing here to live up to his reputation as a seducer, being countered by the desperate actions of Donna Elvira (rescuing Zerlina from the seducer’s clutches and sparking off Donna Anna’s recognition of Giovanni as her would-be seducer at the opera’s beginning) and the eventual confrontation at the “Masker’s Ball” scene between the adversaries. The latter scene was, I thought, superbly staged by Sara Brodie’s creative team of Matthew Kereama, Meg Rollandi and Jo Kilgour, particularly its introduction, the sinister, “avenging angels” aspect of Elvira, Anna and the latter’s fiancée, Don Ottavio well-caught by their emergence from the street’s darkness, their appearance illumed from within by the loveliness of their singing at “Protegga il giusto cielo” – “May the just heavens protect us”, and their energies when denouncing Giovanni galvanising the latter into evasive action!

The Second Act afforded numerous delights – the spirited interaction between Giovanni and Leoporello at the beginning, Amanda Atlas’s touching, unforced  Ah taci, ingiusto core – “Ah, be quiet unjust heart”, and in response, Christian Thurston’s loveliest singing of the evening with Giovanni’s entreaty to Elvira, Discendi, o gioia bella – “Come down here, my lovely”, (Leoporello, disguised as the Don, amusingly “miming” the latter’s gesturings throughout). We then enjoyed the sequence involving Giovanni deceiving and then beating the unfortunate Masetto, leaving it to Zerlina to find her beset fiancée and comfort him with some age-old remedies, Natasha Wilson delightfully suggestive during her Vedrai, carino, se sei buonino, – “If you are good, my darling”. And the confusion generated by the trio of Anna, Elvira and Ottavio’s discovery of Leoporello disguised as the Don convincingly drove the action forward through the latter’s escape and to the welcome reflectiveness of Oliver Sewell’s (slightly shortened) Il mio Tesoro“meanwhile, my treasure” (he had, as Ottavio, already contributed a lyrical, in places beautifully-floated first-Act Dalla sua pace – “Upon her peace of mind”), the second aria contrasting with Elvira’s impassioned Mi tradi quell’alma ingrata – “That ungrateful wretch betrayed me” soon after.

Of course, the overall focus of flight in the opera’s Second Act is towards the denoument of the Final Scene, though a “tipping-point” is the graveyard scene, where the Don, with a casual libidinous remark too many, activates his impending doom. I liked the eeriness of the opening scenario, strange lights and mist and statuesque figures, but wanted it to ambiently change in some way when the statue spoke. I could have imagined an even bigger and blacker voice, but as the statue Paul Whelan was much more in his element, though the impact of his “coming alive” was lessened for me through the figure being veiled, concealing both the moving lips and the nodding head. Then, allowing that scene’s culmination some stand-alone space, was the interim episode where Donna Anna again refused to marry Don Ottavio until a year had elapsed in the wake of her father’s death, Amelia Berry expressing the character’s angst and grief in beautifully fetching tones with Non mi dir, “Do not tell me” though like everybody else I’ve heard in this role, she had to work hard at the coloratura conclusion – what amazing singers Mozart must have had at his disposal to write for them like that!

So to one of opera’s greatest scenes, one which begins with what seem like more of the same from the Don, empty carousings and mindless debaucheries in the company of wrung-out revellers (the Don appearing to feast upon the “spent bodies” of his fellow-carousers as Leoporello helped himself to real food) when suddenly, with Donna Elvira’s scream came a rending asunder of the fabric of the work’s universe accompanied by a reckoning! Again, I thought the great orchestral chords (which we had heard in the Overture) missed an elemental quality, though Paul Whelan’s “Stone Guest” sounded suitably remorseless and sepulchral. As with so many assumptions I’ve seen of this role, I thought it just that bit too unrelievedly static in places to suggest the music’s inexorable advance – and while the hooded Goya-esque figure that bore down on and enfolded the Don at the end made an imposing impression I imagined it could have been altogether darker, even more sinister and elemental,  appearing to have been awakened from the void by the statue’s baleful summons.

However anticlimactic the epilogue after such a profound consignment of the guilty party to the nether regions, it did have the effect of returning the rest of us to our lives, laden with both a plethora of wind-born sound-memories and considerable food for thought. All in all, I’ve reflected since that for a new opera company to bring off such a production and performance first up was a stellar achievement due to committed effort by all concerned. The Wellington Opera Trust would, as well, have been heartened by the public response to this venture – may the company go from strength to strength after such a promising beginning!

 

 

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