New Zealand Opera’s production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni opened its Auckland season on Thursday and had already courted a little bit of controversy as to its staging. Not the stuffy, fusty 18th Century costumes and street scenes for this production directed by Sara Brodie. Rather, the setting is in a seedy, dingy Spanish nightclub, completely devoid of any sophistication whatsoever. There are poledancers and a DJ in residence and smartphones and selfies are taken. Apparently, there’s some substance abuse as well although I have to say I missed that. But you get the idea.
Not surprisingly, this has detracted from the other, arguably more important elements. How’s the music, for starters? Were there any sacrifices made to the plot or libretto to accommodate the setting? And was it any good at all ?
The good news is that the music is good and it is a pretty decent production. While some might argue that some of the traditional elements to the story are reworked to suit the setting, the sets, created by designer John Verryt, are dynamic and up to the usual high standard we have become accustomed to with a New Zealand Opera production. NZO’s Music Director Wyn Davies and the Auckland Philharmonia give their customary quality performance. And, most importantly, the cast is vocally strong.
The two standouts in the cast have to be New Zealand soprano Anna Leese as Donna Elvira, one of Giovanni’s victims, and Australian bass baritone Warwick Fyfe as Giovanni’s long-suffering manservant Leporello. Leese’s vocal power and clear diction were evident from the first notes of the Act 1 aria “ Ah, chi mi dice mai”, when she arrives looking for Don Giovanni and both were sustained throughout the evening to great effect. The mixture of anguish and being deceived by her ex-lover was captured effectively in the Act 2 aria “Mi tradi quell’alma ingrata” which was a highlight.
Fyfe, who’s last Auckland appearance was in NZO’s excellent production of Rigoletto, not only excels vocally, notably in the “Catalogue” aria but also in his interactions with Giovanni and Donna Elvira, but he also inhabits the comicly awkward, fearful and subservient characteristics of his role superbly and this is vital to the success of any production.
That’s not to take away from any of the other members of the cast. Mark Stone is the overtly self-confident Don Giovanni, with his seemingly endless appetite for women who eventually gets his comeuppance. The “Champagne” aria was only one of many chances to demonstrate his excellent vocal technique. Jaewoo Kim’s tenor voice is the role of Don Ottavio is thoroughly clear and melodious, Lisa Harper-Brown is a suitably anguished Donna Anna and Amelia Barry and Robert Tucker as Zerlina and Masetto make a great couple both vocally and stage-wise. Barry’s “Vedrai carino” in Act 2 is particularly good. Jud Arthur, who has also been performing the Commendatore role for Opera Australia this year, is in fine voice and has an acting challenge as well, although I won’t spoil that part of it.
Personally, I’m not sure whether this production visually would be a good introduction to opera for the novice. But that could be because I am used to seeing more traditional productions. That aside, this NZO production is musically effective and does work theatrically and is therefore worth seeing, not only just by fans of opera.