Don Giovanni | Opera Theatre

Who couldn’t love Don Juan? Who hasn’t loved him? He was the libertine all women privately crave and all men crave to be. Well, maybe. All I know is it makes for a good story and Wolfy was by no means slow to recognise its potential for opera, in his trademark style.

Having said that, it’s not his story, nor even that of his librettist, Lorenzo da Ponte. Rather, it harks back to time immemorial and the oral tradition. It’s likely Tirso de Molina’s play, published in the early 17th century, is the first written telling; Wolfy’s take came some 150 years or so later, seeing the light of day in Prague, in 1787. A captivating sidelight is that Giacomo Casanova was most probably in the audience.

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For my money, if any opera epitomises dramma giocoso, it’s Don Giovanni. Even if its composer classed it as opera buffa, but confounded us by recording the words ‘dramma giocoso’ in the title. Setting aside debates about musically-correct correct nomenclature, in this brand-spanking production from Opera Australia, director Goran Jarvefelt seems to have chanelled the good-humoured spirit of the decomposing composer (well, the spirit according to Peter Shaffer, anyway). I fancy Wolfy would’ve approved.

As so many have acknowledged, from the first few bars, this is the perfect opera. Flaubert reckoned only Hamlet and the sea were, or are, as fine, and  nothing was, or is, finer. Mozart has the unparallelled knack of throttling-up the dramatics from the get-go so, by the time the overture is winding down we’re already waiting with Leporello, keeping guard, anticipating, worrying the Don will be caught with his pants down. Conal Coad picks up on the comic promise of the situation immediately and instinctively; we’re primed for laughing and nary a word has been sung. There he is, an operatic clown, the stage equivalent of Oliver Hardy, or some such. And when he opens his mouth, out pours this thundering bass, very much in keeping with the drama written into the score. His Leporello is lovable, rotund teddy bear, horribly exploited by his master, but no less worthy of affection for his pathetic loyalty. A kind of Sergeant Schultz.

Soon after Leporello’s warning of an approach, the lithe, elongated Teddy Tahu Rhodes leaps from the balcony of Donna Anna’s bedroom, looking like he’s wearing Zorro’s pjs, right down to black leather hotpants. Donna Anna’s father, the Commendatore, is in hot pursuit, veritably crying, “who was that masked man?!” Regrettably, Don G resolves to kill him, despite his perfunctory protestations that “I don’t fight old men”. I say regrettably, but, for Don G, it’s not just a survival tactic, it’s half the fun. Yes, he’s a deplorable human being, but so consummately charming and disarming, you can’t help but like him. And besides, who can resist Rhodes’ unfalteringly rich, robust baritone? One can’t imagine any singer better-suited to the role. Or actor, for he towers in that respect, too. In short, he lives up to the meaning of his middle name, a Maori one which means ‘to set on fire’. Moreover, Coad and Rhodes are such an inspired double-act, as master and servant, it’s hard for anyone else to command attention.

Yet, they do. Rachel Durkin shows what she’s made of, as Don Ottavio’s betrothed, with her keenly-judged portrayal of a woman torn between loyalty and susceptibility to a wild, unawakened nature, that Giovanni threatens to unleash. She doesn’t need much encouragement to succumb to his bad-boy attractions. Better yet, her bright, crystal-clear tone, perfect pitch, colossal coloratura and resplendent power lose nothing to her male counterparts.

Daniel Sumegi, as Donna Anna’s father, the Commendatore, was suitably grave (no pun intended) and his voice, too, of course, has the kind of presence and gravitas that helps pull that off, making for a strong, characterful contrast between his basso profundo and the delightful basso buffo produced by Coad. To have the triple-treat of these three manly basses in one production (Coad, Rhodes, Sumegi) is a thrill. But even amid this heavy-hitting company, one of my sentimental favourites, Henry Choo, still impresses, with his silky-smooth, honeyed, lyrical coloratura tenor: surely it’s the kind of endowment that’s born, not bred; touching and exquisite.

Jacqui Dark (read Curtain Call‘s interview here) bolstered an invincible cast even more, thanks to her histrionic, yet sympathetic take on the jilted Donna Elvira and her effortlessly agile mezzo, which has no trouble reaching to the very top of the soprano range. Speaking of sopranos, Taryn Fiebig’s peasant-girl, Zerlina, presented a wonderful opportunity to showcase her incredible technique and vocal self-mastery, as well as her flair for adapting her style to fit the bill. Finally, among the principals, Zerlina’s husband-to-be, Masetto, is played by Andrew Jones, who shows great dramatic promise but, in this overwhelming company, was outshone (no embarrassment, purely a function of a supernova cast).

Carl Friedrich Oberle’s design is also a star: nothing too fancy, but built around a sense of tasteful grandeur which enhances the sense of time and place, as well as the narrative. Conductor Mark Wiggesworth waves a magic wand to bring the very best out of the Austrian Opera and Ballet Orchestra, which is saying a lot. But it’s Jarvefelt for whom I reserve the greatest admiration (also saying a lot), for having the courage to take this ravishing work in the most good-natured comical direction, without sacrificing the drama or philosophical and psychosocial questions raised in the clever libretto. The cast is to die for and, as a whole, this production might just be the finest I’ve seen, so far, this lifetime.

Again, that’s saying a lot.

The details: Don Giovanni plays the Opera Theatre, Sydney Opera House until November 5. A Melbourne season opens at the State Theatre, Arts Centre on December 2. Tickets on the OA website.