Coming to a repeat performance of an opera holds various elements of interest, writes Heather Leviston. Not least of them is a further appreciation of the quality of the singing. Bowled over by the superb singing of Giacomo Prestia on the opening night of Don Carlos, it would have been easy to take his exceptional achievements more for granted on a second hearing, namely, on May 27. In fact, the opposite was the case. Anybody hearing him again would have felt compelled to join in the roar of approval that greeted his curtain call with even greater enthusiasm.
Given the memory of Prestia’s Philip on the previous night, it was interesting to see whether the singing of the bass and bass baritone roles for the May 28 performance of Don Giovanni would be as impressive as it had been on the opening night. Happily, the opening scene was equally arresting and perhaps the most exciting moment for the evening came towards the end of the opera with the trio between Shane Lowrencev (Leporello), Teddy Tahu Rhodes (Don Giovanni) and Jud Arthur (The Commendatore). The interplay between these three powerful voices was positively thrilling. Taryn Fiebig (Zerlina) and Jane Ede (Donna Elvira) continued their valiant efforts to overcome the dampening effect of the almost grey-scale shadowy design with well-projected, shining voices and animated acting. The big difference between the two performances, however, was an unexpected cast change.
Owing to indisposition of Emma Matthews, the role of Donna Anna was performed by Eva Kong. Her jubilation as she took her bows stemmed not simply from survivor’s relief; rather, it was from knowing that she had acquitted herself with distinction. While her voice does not yet have the weight generally expected of Donna Anna (particularly in the context of the resonant voices of Tahu Rhodes and Lowrencev), nor quite Emma Matthews’ supreme control for the florid passages of “Non mi dir”, her singing was accomplished in all respects. A lovely vocal quality, easy production and convincing acting marked her as a soprano with a successful operatic career ahead of her.
All in all, revisiting Opera Australia’s current production of Don Giovanni turned out to be an unexpectedly rewarding experience.
Editor’s note: Heather Leviston was a guest at the premiere of Don Giovanni. Suzanne Yanko’s review of that performance appears below.
The second of Opera Australia’s offerings for the Melbourne season was unveiled on Monday, 11 May at the State Theatre, one week after Madama Butterfly had thrilled audiences. Glowing reviews spoke of Butterfly’s simplicity and beauty, but while Don Giovanni had an effective if simple set, it was dark grey, striking but grim, with not much relief throughout. Surprisingly, this mood was not conveyed by Orchestra Victoria in what should have been a very dramatic opening chord (although the orchestra did prove more than up to the challenge of the work as a whole).
It is true that Don Giovanni’s darker side was the subject of Mozart’s opera, and a murder fairly early in the piece established the seriousness of the subject matter. But did we have to have anterooms full of skulls on either side of the stage? Surely it was not meant to suggest that Don Giovanni’s crimes were on a level with Pol Pot’s? But these grim artifacts stayed in place throughout the whole opera, also often making it difficult to understand where the action was taking place.
While this is hardly a cheerful tale, though, there was a lot more humour than remembered from previous productions, largely due to the enhanced role of Leporello, Giovanni’s servant. Shane Lowrencev played him as a put-upon but perhaps wily buffoon with an eye to the main chance, who in fact got the opportunity he longed for – to “be the master” – in the deceptive pursuit of Elvira.
In line with this importance, Lowrencev sang with a strong baritone voice that matched, or at least was very comfortable with, his many interchanges with the strongly-voiced Don Giovanni, Teddy Tahu Rhodes.
Don Giovanni was first seen attempting rape, an act which very firmly established his part in this drama. No misunderstood hero here, however charming the voice of the singer might be. The main players in the drama were introduced early in the opera, with Elvira (Jane Ede, first arriving in men’s clothes) the stronger of the two wronged women in terms of her voice and dramatic sense. Both Donna Anna (Emma Matthews) and Don Ottavio (John Longmuir) were heard more to advantage in their duets, particularly in the later part of the opera, than they were in their better-known arias.
The wedding feast of the peasants Zerlina and Masetto introduced some warmth and life into the situation. As Zerlina, Taryn Fiebig was to prove perhaps one of the more inspired pieces of casting for this opera, whether she was singing solo or in the very famous duet, “La ci darem la mano”. It is ironic that where Don Giovanni is very much the villain of the piece, yet the most disturbing aria of the opera is Zerlina’s plea to Masetto (Richard Anderson), her supposedly wronged lover, to beat her (“Batti, batti o bel Masetto”). The opera has a number of such appealing moments, musically speaking, that appear to be Mozart set pieces. Another is the trio between Anna, Ottavio and Elvira, a lovely moment in the opera even if the three voices were not perfectly balanced.
One of the most impressive voices was that of the Commendatore (Jud Arthur) including from off stage. His appearance satisfied as one of the high points of the opera – but I will not give details as each production of Don Giovanni solves the problem of getting a ghost on and off stage in its own way.
Finally, it must be said that Teddy Tahu Rhodes has again found a role to relish, one that shows off his acting skills and remarkably resonant rich voice. With a wig (and not bare-chested as in so many productions) the “hero” of the hour was not so immediately recognisable… until he opened his mouth. Then there was no doubt who was on stage, and that Opera Australia had once again made the right choice, even if some other aspects of the production left something to be desired.
Taryn Fiebig as Zerlina and Teddy Tahu Rhodes as Don Giovanni. Image Lisa Tomasetti