15 Mar 2009

Don Giovanni — Victorian Opera

Each Australia state maintains its own opera company. The dominant company is Opera Australia, a permanent ensemble based at the Sydney Opera House but which originated in the Melbourne based National Theatre Opera Company in the 1940s.

Headed by the Melba protégée soprano Gertrude Johnson the company grew in stature and by the 1950s featured expatriate singers such as Marjorie Lawrence (whose centenary passed on 17 February this year) as Amneris in Aida and another Melba protégée John Brownlee as Don Giovanni. The company gave joint seasons in Sydney with the National Opera of New South Wales. The Sydney company recruited many of the singers from Johnson’s company and, in 1956 as part of the larger Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust founded what is now Opera Australia. As a national company a requirement of Opera Australia’s funding is that it tour but performances outside of Sydney are almost exclusively to Melbourne for seasons between April and June and November and December each year.

Meanwhile companies established in other sates during the 1960s and in 1976 the Victoria State Opera formed and seasons by both companies continued until 1996 when financial difficulties caused the Victorian company to be absorbed by the national company and cease to exist. A decade later Victorian Opera was founded under the artistic direction of former Opera Australia staff conductor Richard Gill. Productions are modest to look at and use emerging singers but the musical preparation is scrupulous and the singers perform the roles rather than learn them as rarely-performing covers as trainees in a larger company would do.

French director Jean Pierre Mignon has long been resident in Australia where he established a theatre company that produced, among other things, Molière’s version of the Don Juan legend. Mignon’s production of the opera is reminiscent of Molière’s farce and the intimacy of the production allows for subtle comedy more than usual in the opera. The Don himself (Samuel Dundas), dressed in a gleaming white costume, the reverse of his true colours, is an arrogant and conceited young pup (that so young-looking a Don has notched up so many conquests beggars’ belief). Although his voice is still young and light toned, he uses it with great skill, projecting the text in very good Italian and giving it shape and nuance. He has a good grasp of the Don’s mercurial character too, physically handsome he also conveys the swaggering, aristocratic arrogance and, above all, the snake-eyed charm. With only two modest arias Don Giovanni’s persona lives through music involving other characters. Dundas savors these moments and is even more impressive in the recititative passages, making them carry the bulk of his characterization. An example is the brief scene with Zerlina (Michelle Buscemi) before their duet “La ci darem la mano” where he seems to taste the honey of his own words. Only the softest parts of the music, the opening phrase of “La ci darem” and the mandolin serenade need the elusive legato.


Samuel Dundas (Don Giovanni) and Andrew Collis (Leporello) [Photo by Jeff Busby/Victorian Opera]

Zerlina’s music suits Buscemi’s silvery voice and she conveys Zerlina's gentle eroticism, ecstatically sighing the words “toccami qua” in ‘Vedrai, carino’ with same understanding as Dundas conveying Giovanni’s lust. Tiffany Speight sings regularly with Opera Australia and has established herself in the lighter Mozart roles. A splendid Zerlina she steps up to the dominant female character Donna Elvira. Speights’s radiant soprano easily encompassed the music including the often-difficult lower passages in the epilogue and elsewhere. She is a very subtle comedienne too, doomed by her unshakable obsession with the faithless Don her Elvira flusters like a frustrated schoolmistress. The Prague version of the opera was performed (eliminating Don Ottavio’s “Dalla sua pace” and Elvira’s “Mi tradi”) which is a pity as Speight would have crowned a spectacular performance had she been allowed “Mi Tradi”. As Don Giovanni’s sidekick Andrew Collis is another more experienced singer who creates an oily Leporello, the director relating him back to the character, Sganarelle, in Molière’s play. His ‘catalogue’ aria bubbles with vulgarity and just a hint of admiration for his master’s virility. With no sign of stage nerves, Dundas is a natural clown too and with Speight and Collis made the serenading scene in act two hilarious without undermining the beauty of the music.

Donna Anna’s music presented a challenge to Caroline Wenborne but she managed the difficult fioritura without any compromises. The fearful drama in "Or sai chi l'onore" was less evident but again her performance was musically intelligent. James Egglestone was equally adept at Don Ottavio's 'Il mio tesoro'. Pity his “Dalla su pace” was omitted as it would have suited his well supported and focused tenor voice. The vocal preparation of all of the soloists was obviously thorough and the intimate scale allowed for some dramatic details that would never work in a larger theatre. The Don, for example, gives Zerlina a flower which drops suggestively from her hand at the end of “La ci darem la mano” and is retrieved and re-used, like the Don's come-on lines, until it ends up planted in Elvira's hopeful cleavage.

Richard Roberts’s set is a marvel of economy, transforming from back streets to a Moorish palace and sinister tomb. Steeply raked and angled it suggested the endless corners Don Giovanni backs into and escapes from. Performed in the old National Theatre (named after Johnson’s enterprise and where a portrait of her, knife raised, as the Queen of the Night fearlessly protects what remains of her legacy) which seats 500 has the intimacy to put Mozart’s masterpiece under a microscope. With a small chorus it was played and sung without perhaps the greatest refinement but with undoubted professionalism and a constant feeling for the excitement of the story and the music.

3, 5, 7, 10, 12 & 14 March, followed by a metropolitan and regional Victorian tour between 28 March and 25 April 2009

Michael Magnusson