Reviewed by Priscilla Issa
Sir David McVicar’s gothic crack at Mozart’s creation of sexual immorality was polished and nuanced. The production returns to the Joan Sutherland Theatre exhibiting all the seduction, drama and heartbreak that it had when it first appeared on the Opera House stage.
Of particular note is McVicar’s choice to shine a light on the ambiguities prevalent in 19th Century European society beginning to shy away from sexual proclivity in favour of Victorian morals. We see these hypocrisies explored in four different ways: Donna Anna might test her sexual compass; Don Ottavio desperately wants to but is held back by marital constraints; Donna Elvira continuously see-saws with her values; but, it is the libertine, Don Giovanni, who stands in stark contrast to sexual constraints – his 1003 exploits proudly recorded in a notebook.
McVicar has done a rousing job drawing convincing performances out of all the leads who impressively conveyed the moral depths, both emotional and physical, at the centre of Da Ponte’s libretto.
The setting, designed by Robert Jones, has become one of the most impressive to take over the Joan Sutherland Theatre stage. The palazzo, with its blackest of black walls, gigantic pillars, and the trademark ‘falling from the sky’ staircase are all allusions to the macabre elements which took over the poets of the age - so much so that it feels like a charnel house of horrors. The fact the action is set mainly below the empyrean among graveyards, bones and skulls is a kind of foreshadowing of Don Giovanni’s end. Jones’ costumes are the quintessential black dress of the 19th Century; the performers’ pale skin by contrast to the black-as-obsidian walls raises the creepiness stakes. David Finn’s lighting does an impressive job creating that dark/light stark contrast, although perhaps the performers’ faces could have been lit up a little more.
The music was controlled and contained an unerring sense of drama. Xu Zhong and the orchestra’s reading of Mozart’s score was thrilling!
The cast was outstanding.
Australian, Jane Ede, proved her prowess with her shimmering upper notes and warm middle voice never forced, enabling her to play the conflicted Donna Elvira in a heartfelt and realistic way. Her signature aria, Mi tradì quell’alma ingrate, was dramatic and expertly delivered. Audiences experience the full throttle of her heartbreak from the moment she arrives to confront Don Giovanni about his antics to her desperate final attempts to capture his affections.
By contrast, Eleanor Lyons’s vocal performance of Donna Anna was striking and resonant, her voice sitting above the orchestra and her fellow singers. In fact, it was her ‘squillo’ that seemed to rouse audiences and garner rapturous applause. Australian audiences seem to miss that ‘Joan Sutherland ring’ in singers that fills auditoriums with effortlessness. Her ability to dial the decibels back to match her fellow singers in the multiple duets and trios was impressive. Her acting was perhaps a little overplayed at the start in the scene where she fends off her attacker, Don Giovanni. A little more heartache, guttural desperation and a sense of ‘brokenness’ was missing from the scene. Rather, audiences received a slew of hysterics which was in some ways jarring and felt a little out of place given her co-performer’s (Luca Micheletti) realism. However, perhaps this was a directorial choice; it may be that McVicar wanted to highlight the depravity of sexual assault, foreshadowing the harrowing effect assault has on the various women in the storyline.
A personal favourite was Anna Dowsley’s performance as Zerlina. While the voice is warm – some might say slightly dark and covered – it was a breather from all the tension and impending doom. Dowlsey’s mellow timbre worked perfectly in her sincere rendition of Vedrai carino. In fact, the sincerity caught the audience by surprise; even though the song is about seducing one’s lover, her performance was a welcome move away from lust to an inviting portrayal of love.
The male lead performances were equally as compelling, despite the odd vocal let-down. Luca Micheletti’s acting performance as Don Giovanni was sinister, alluring, at times nonchalant, but mostly charismatic particularly in his libido-filled rendition of Là ci darem la mano. His vocals were equally as riveting; he has a kind of budding Pavarotti quality – that desired Italian ring.
Another acting standout was Shane Lowrencev as Leporello. He played the bespectacled fool well. The part is difficult to act because it requires conveying a bad guy who wants to become good (but deep down wants to stay bad). Lowrencev had the audience experience the complete rollercoaster ride. We were angry with Leporello being the accessory to Don Giovanni’s cavorting ways; cheered him on when he convinced himself he would move on from his master; and, we rolled our eyes when he returned to his antic ways all for a bit of money. His ‘Catalogue Aria’ detailing the 1003 affairs of the Don was hilarious. One could tell Lowrencev was in his theatrical element, revelling in the salaciousness of every detail. His powerful upper register sat beautifully against Micheletti’s; the blend in overtones was glorious to behold. It is a shame that his lower vocals struggled to support him. It is occasionally hard for a baritone to sound against an orchestra and the piercing resonance of sopranos. It was by no means a lazy vocal performance, but it was noticeably a little low set.
A brilliant production all-round. The season runs until 27 February. Be sure to catch this sophisticated performance of Mozart’s much-loved opera.
Image Credit: Keith Saunders
All opinions and thoughts expressed within reviews on Theatre Travels are those of the writer and not of the company at large.