Don Giovanni kneels opposite Zerlina
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A magnificent night at the opera

Review: West Australian Opera, Don Giovanni ·
His Majesty’s Theatre, 20 October ·
Review by Leon Levy ·

The conductor Hans Richter, when asked to nominate the greatest composer, replied “Beethoven, undoubtedly”. Taken aback, the questioner retorted “But I thought you might have considered Mozart”. “Oh,” said Richter, “I didn’t understand that you were bringing Mozart into the argument; I thought you were referring to the rest”.

Many decades on, with Verdi and Wagner recognised for their genius, is it possible that Mozart’s operatic star is now outshone? If that is a plausible notion, West Australian Opera’s remount of the 1991 Opera Australia production by the late Gӧran Jӓrvefelt and Carl Friedrich Oberle deals decisively with the suggestion.

But now a question surely arises in relation to the character of Don Giovanni himself. Themes of cruelty and injustice abound throughout drama, and the character of the philanderer surely falls within this broad spectrum, often eliciting an amused acceptance. Not only the degrading role that the Don assigns to women and which forms an unwavering thread through the work, but the casual disregard of the freshly-murdered Commendatore and the freedom with which, as of right, he sidelines the newly married Masetto in order to seduce Zerlina, all of these suggest a work that would not be acceptable to a modern audience… were it not for the fact that the moral bankruptcy of the man is so clearly revealed, to say nothing of the end that he meets.

On opening night everything that Mozart set to music in this work unfolded in a way that held the audience in its grip through three hours. From the first notes of the overture one was aware that we were in the safest of hands: Brad Cohen, conducting the West Australian Symphony Orchestra with dash and sensitivity as required, brought distinction to the accompaniment.

Don Giovanni overlooks a crouched Zerlina
In the role of Don Giovanni, Teddy Tahu Rhodes’s stature and stamina helps to delineate his character. Centre front is Rebecca Castellini as Zerlina.

In the title role, Teddy Tahu Rhodes’s reputation precedes him and his stature and stamina – both vocally and physically — help to delineate his character, while all whose paths cross with his fully inhabit their roles. First on stage, James Clayton as Leporello, the Don’s much-abused manservant, immediately establishes his character, and goes on to sing throughout the evening with a vocal gleam that one would have been excited to encounter in – shall we say – Salzburg! And as each cast member appears, one notes with pleasure that we have before us a gathering performance of uniform excellence, each member cutting a plausible figure in his or her role; and, thereafter, highlights abound.

Emma Pearson, as the abandoned but still infatuated Donna Elvira, captures her character’s conflicted emotions, reaching a peak of torment in Mi tradi. So too does Anita Watson as Donna Anna, whose shock and devastation at the murder of her father have to be balanced with the needs of her fiancée Don Ottavio; in her heartfelt Non mi dir, her torment is conveyed in full.

A woman in a white dress and red cape.
Emma Pearson captures Donna Elvira’s conflicted emotions.

Meanwhile the hapless Don Ottavio, who seems destined to have to wait a further year before reaching the marital bed, must  be content with the relatively colourless persona that librettist Da Ponte has assigned to him. Consolation for this is provided by his aria Il mio Tesoro, mellifluously sung by Jonathan Abernethy.

As the newly married rustics Masetto and Zerlina, Wade Kernot and Rebecca Castellini convey subtleties of characterisation, she almost vulnerable to the Don’s charisma, he deeply wounded by his suspicions and by the assertion of the latter’s superiority by virtue of class. Jud Arthur, as creepy an animated statue of the dead Commendatore as you could wish to encounter, makes his mark in the high drama of the conclusion (which left the audience gasping).

A word must be said, too, for the fine ensemble work throughout: the trio Protegga il giusto cielo and the sextet Sola, sola in buio loco are examples of many compelling moments.

In sum, a magnificent night at the opera, a triumph for all involved, and a memorable conclusion to the 2018 season. The assembled cast, conductor, Roger Press (rehearsal director), Oberle (set and costume designer) in person, Nigel Levings (lighting) and Andy Fraser (fight director) received a warm and richly deserved ovation… as surely did Mozart and Da Ponte.

Don Giovanni closes Saturday 27 October.

Pictured top: Teddy Tahu Rhodes as Don Giovanni and Rebecca Castellini as Zerlina.

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