Opera Australia’s Don Giovanni

Catherine Carby, Rachelle Durkin and Gábor Bretz

If one wants uniformity to be the basic rule for an opera, it is easy to see that a more perfect subject … than ‘Don Giovanni’ is simply not to be contemplated. (Source)

Was Kierkegaard right about this opera being the greatest of all time? Conceivably, personal taste comes into it somewhere, but to the extent that the proposition is a scientific theory, it’s a very hard one to refute. The work is an ingenious blend of comedy and tragedy, with an engrossing narrative, a sparkling script, a reprehensible but not quite despicable central character, and a brilliant dramatic denouement. On top of that there’s three hours of sublime music, without a boring moment in it, in a genre that has its fair share, though no more than its fair share, of boring moments.

While Opera Australia seems to put Don Giovanni on every three years or so, this is a brand new production. The first big decision for the director of any new production of this opera is what kind of tone she should strive for. It’s generally true that 21st Century audiences can’t take 18th Century Opera Seria seriously; accordingly in many cases some kind of camp or tongue-in-cheek interpretation is called for. I’ve seen at least one such version of Don Giovanni, and while that was very entertaining, it seems to me that the music itself firmly dictates something dark and atmospheric. Even in this century, we like our ghost stories to be genuinely spooky.

It’s possible that I’m overly influenced by the first production I saw — as dark and atmospheric as you could want, with recitatives accompanied by piano in place of the more comical harpsichord. Then there’s Amadeus!, my earliest taste of DG, which has a spine-tingling Commendatore scene — adding its own riveting, scary twist — and which makes great use of those eerie musical passages that evoke the wind in the trees. But if my first taste had been a slapstick version, perhaps that would have become my standard.

A secondary question is whether the aforementioned dramatic denouement should be the end of the opera. This is a real problem.The first time I saw it, I wasn’t familiar with the piece as a whole, and when what I took to be the finale ended — with Don Giovanni cast into Hell, to an exhilarating musical crescendo — I sat, appropriately stunned, for a moment, and then, assuming it was all over, began organising myself for furious applause. To my disappointment, the Epilogue sextet then commenced. This appendix is pleasant enough, and deserves to be tolerated in some productions for historical interest. But it does break the mood. One might as well tack a gay finale onto the end of Rigoletto, which has a an equally dramatic ending. It would be comforting to know that Gilda has gone straight to heaven, but a chorus of welcoming angels would break the awful spell cast by that final scene much too soon. In Don Giovanni, the ‘lieto fine’ was apparently dropped from most 19th Century productions. According to Matthew Westwood, the sextet was rehearsed, but director Elke Neidhardt hadn’t made up her mind until the last minute whether to include it. When the last minute came, it seems she decided against.

It was the right decision — though it would have better to know from the start whether the sextet was coming or not; you don’t know for sure until the Don heads back to the front of the stage for the curtain calls.

All of the creative decisions are well considered: as far as I’m concerned, Neidhardt’s production provides no basis for refuting Kierkegaard’s conjecture. It’s superbly cast, with the three female parts beautifully sung and dramatically defined as well. Peter McCallum’s excellent review in the Herald sums up this aspect perfectly. I’d add only that Amy Wilkinson exactly hit the spot with her take on Zerlina, the Don’s last attempted conquest before it all unravels for him. Joshua Bloom too is a delightful surprise, his rich bass voice flowing unexpectedly from an amiable, mop-headed Leporello.

Bloom might have stolen the show, but for the casting of visiting Hungarian baritone, Gábor Bretz, in the title roll. I’ve seen Bretz in two other productions of Don Giovanni — first as Leporello with the Hungarian State Opera, and later as the Don in a Hungarian language version produced for the Budapest Spring Festival. He is the quintessential operatic artist, at once actor and musician — the one, immersed in his character, enchanting his audience as the swaggering manipulator; the other, singing like an angel — one that happens in this case to be Lucifer — bringing Mozart’s rapturous melodies and harmonies to life with all the feeling and technical precision they require. (I’ve reached the limits of my critical vocabulary here.) For a foretaste, here’s Bretz in the same role with the Croatian National Opera: this clip includes both of the mesmerising trios with Leporello and the Commendatore (the damnation scene starts at 2.15).

In this production, the Don is a 20th Century playboy. But he is not fixed in any decade — snorting cocaine, slouching in a Panama hat, or groping a bunny girl, as seems best suited to the moment. The sets are essentially abstract. Strange triangles in the foreground, constantly rearranged, bring to mind the walls of Dracula’s castle; a cloister-like configuration around the perimeter faintly evokes a medieval courtyard — the traditional setting for Act I. These are illuminated by ghastly lights, as are the upper story windows, where characters occasionally appear. The Don’s court musicians appear there too on one occasion, resembling creatures from Dr Seuss. The equally weird digital patterns projected on the curtain for the overture, have more to do with science fiction than the supernatural; and indeed the bright panel of crisscrossing lights that materialises in the final scene, drawing our unrepentant hero into its vortex and disintegrating him, could have been an alien life form out of one of the scarier episodes of Star Trek.

Why ‘hero’? Why ‘not quite despicable’? Well, it depends on how you react to his failure to repent. On the one hand, it confirms that his soul is beyond redemption, that he is a diabolical monster rather than a mere villain. On the other hand, there is a definite invitation to find something to admire. As the writer of this century-old essay puts it:

There is one accusation, however, none can urge against him. He was not a coward. Therein lies the appeal of the character. His is a brilliant, impetuous figure, with a dash of philosophy, which is that, sometime, somewhere, in the course of his amours, he will discover the perfect woman from whose lips he will be able to draw the sweetness of all women. Moreover he is a villain with a keen sense of humour.

In the present day and age, to own up to this sneaking sympathy is bound to invite charges of misogyny. So how do we acquit ourselves of those? My feeling is that Neidhardt’s aim, in expunging the religious elements from the production, is to bypass questions of moral choice and culpability, and give a less judgmental commentary on the passions that rule us frail humans. Probably banal and wrong, but that’s my reading.

The Opera goes until 10 September; but see it with Bretz, whose last performance is on 9 August.

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