This review first appeared in The Guardian Australia.
During the late 17th century, Europe saw a cultural movement that brought on not only the scientific revolution, but also the dawn of a new philosophical era. The age of enlightenment was set in motion by philosophers such as Locke, Voltaire, Bacon and Descartes, and it is during its death that the celebrated Scottish opera director David McVicar sets his new production of Don Giovanni.
A black curtain shrouds the stage as the audience enters, revealing hints of the graveyard behind it. Reportedly inspired by a catacomb filled with 4,000 bodies beneath a cathedral in Vienna, production designer Robert Jones replicates this image with a set of moving walls and staircases behind which the actors can hide (and die). The costumes, faithful to the neoclassicism of early 19th century Europe, veil the singers with a sense of final judgment. All the main characters, save for the wedding party, remain in a vigil of black.
In keeping with the era’s philosophical themes, much of the opera's more lascivious action is limited to groping beneath the heavy drawers, and, as a result, it’s aloof and a bit unsexy. Similarly, some of the tension is lost in the cavernous set, although it does provide opportunities for painterly tableaux.
Otherwise, the acting is strong. McVicar, he of the swearing, grinding and slapping of body parts, studied at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama as an actor, and his confronting methods of pushing performers to dig deep into their characters’ motivations have clearly paid off.
John Longmuir is compelling as Don Ottavio, turning a normally flat side character into someone with a full inner and outer life. His aria sung to Donna Anna is exquisite and heartfelt. Emerging Opera Australia favourite Nicole Car is also riveting. From the moment she strides on stage in her slacks, she gives Donna Elvira the vocal and physical spunk the character needs.
Shane Lowrencev fills his Leporello with a bumbling frat-boy charm and tackles his catalogue aria with great relish. Elvira Fatykhova as Donna Anna and Taryn Fiebig as Zerlina are both capable, and Jud Arthur as the Commendatore makes the most of his Voldemort-style rising from the dead. The orchestra, this time featuring the fortepiano played by Siro Battaglin, is also accomplished.
But it is the man famous for playing Don Giovanni over the past 12 years who has his work set out for him. In a recent interview, McVicar said he wanted baritone Teddy Tahu Rhodes to access the darker aspects of the serial seducer. The result is a cool performance that is markedly different to the usual charm of both the singer and character.
As with the production design, it’s with ration, not passion that this version of the infamous libertine grabs his women, drawing them towards him with the studied detachment of a sociopath. It’s a challenging interpretation, but it’s also revelatory. At the end of the opera, when Rhodes crawls towards the trapdoor that has opened to take him to hell, he moves with a resignation that is less about repentance of sin than an acceptance of a world that has, for better or worse, created him.
With its mixture of comedy, high drama, conflicted morality and supernatural elements, as well as its complex musicality, Mozart’s classic has traditionally proved thorny to stage. This is a highly sophisticated take. The next two productions McVicar stages for Opera Australia will do well to be just as thought-provoking.