The Opera Division’s fall production this year is Mozart’s Don Giovanni in a production by Marilyn Gronsdal. Let’s start with the production. The sets are all paper and boxes with a few props and the costuming is 1940s. The aesthetic is film noir. There are trilbies and Don Ottavio is packing a piece in a shoulder holster. It set, for me and my companion at least, an expectation that this would be a “film noir production” but although there were nods in that direction; Leporello as the comic sidekick, statuette of the Commendatore as the murder weapon for example, the idea wasn’t really developed at all. Instead we got a very straightforward narrative with the a few twists. Gronsdal included a chorus of silent women who comment on the action (didn’t she do this in Saskatoon as well?) and Don Giovanni isn’t dragged down to Hell.
Sometimes this works really well, sometimes it’s perplexing or even disappointing. The silent chorus is generally used to effect to suggest a general idea of sexual predation or, perhaps, the Don’s actual victims. In the graveyard scene several of the women become funerary statues. That’s a nice touch. On the other hand, with no real concept to work with a lot of the characters become a bit anonymous. The opening scene is played dead straight. We are, I think, asked to believe that Donna Anna really has no idea who has attacked her. I have always found this idea essentially implausible and it has the added disadvantage of making Donna Anna much less interesting.
Zerlina here is a mystery wrapped in an enigma. What is her relationship with Masetto? It’s as if the director didn’t know or didn’t care. In Batti, batti she moves from position to position 10 to 20 feet away from Masetto and there’s no clarity as to whether she’s trying to win him back or dismiss him as a useless wimp. The wound tending scene is equally devoid of sexual tension. Then there’s Don Giovanni’s death. Here he dies of a heart attack in terror with the Commendatore singing offstage. Then the women tear up bits of the scenery and leave. (“Don Giovanni you villain! We slightly moisten your stationery!”). This Don is vital, so full of life, and so unreflective that it just seems ridiculous. On the way home we thought of so many better ways this could have been done! At least it was the Prague ending so no boring scene of future plan discussions. All in all, a lot of ideas that appeared visually but never really got worked convincingly into the drama.
The performances though were generally very good by any standards and definitely above expectations for a student show. Andrew Adridge was a very characterful Don Giovanni. He’s a big physically imposing chap with a surprisingly lyrical baritone. There’s a “covered” quality to the voice at times which is both interesting and sometimes a bit disconcerting. If he learns to use it when and only when for dramatic effect it could be very handy. He makes good use of his physicality and maniacal laugh to dominate the stage when he wants to and whatever I think about the coronary idea his acting in that scene is spectacular. From a pure singing point of view I thought he did a nice job on Deh vieni. Brendan Friesen as Leporello is another interesting case. The voice is very dark. I really wonder if he won’t end up as a bass rather than a bass baritone. Combine that with rather broad, “cheeky chappy” acting and it makes for an unusual and attractive Leporello. His instrument though isn’t the most flexible at this point and the patter song elements sounded a bit taxed. Joel Allison positively boomed as the Commendatore, especially in the final scene. Nice job. Matthew Cairns as Don Ottavio and Alex Halliday as Don Ottavio as Masetto were stranded a bit dramatically by a lack of definition for their characters. The former sounded good, if a little baritonal. Clearly he’s more comfortable in the middle range and has a rather dark tone that isn’t a stereotypical Mozart tenor. Halliday made a good job of what he was given.
The standout among the ladies was Jamie Groote as Donna Elvira. I really enjoyed the colours in her voice and she made something of the character. She was pretty secure in the runs in her arias and was pleasing and accurate except at the very top of the range where she had just a touch of young singer stridency. Nice job. Alyssa Durnie’s Donna Anna was vocally not bad at all. A touch of stridency at the top again but generally secure in all the big numbers. Dramatically the production just didn’t give her anything to work with. Georgia Burashko’s Zerlina was beautifully sung. From a sheer loveliness of singing point of view is was perhaps the best of the night; sweet, secure and controlled and with more power than I thought she had based on previous experience. Dramatically though, see above. Uri Mayer conducted and did a really good job of supporting the singers and the stage action. It was all clear and quite delicate; dramatic only when needed. The singers were never covered and rarely pushed. The orchestra responded nicely to his direction.
So, overall, a well sung Don Giovanni with a few interesting ideas that weren’t fully developed and some characters not fully realised dramatically. Enjoyable enough as it stood but leaving a nagging feeling that something much more interesting almost happened.
There’s one last performance with a rather different cast this afternoon at 2.30pm.
Photo credits: Richard Lu