REVIEW:  VANCOUVER OPERA’S ‘DON GIOVANNI’

Daniel Okulitch (Don Giovanni), Katherine Whyte (Donna Anna), Krisztina Szabó (Donna Elvira), Colin Ainsworth (Don Ottavio), Stephen Hegedus (Leporello), Rachel Fenlon (Zerlina), Aaron Durand (Masetto), conducted by Steuart Bedford, directed by Kelly Robinson, Bob Bonniel, projection design, Queen Elizabeth Theater, March 8, 2014.

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It is a curious characteristic of the human animal that it finds vice more interesting than virtue. Perhaps this is what makes Don Giovanni so fascinating: its hero is a major transgressor who injures everyone else in the opera yet remains an attractive character. Attractive because funny, charming, seductive, carefree, and ruthless. He gets away with things we all secretly wish we could get away with and he does so with style. His foil Don Ottavio, who unlike Don Giovanni is attentive to the reality of women, is an utter bore. This is the Don Giovanni currently presented to us in Vancouver Opera’s thoroughly satisfying coproduction with The Banff Centre.

Daniel Okulitch had the measure of the lead part, with his swagger and sweet seductiveness. He sang and acted extremely well, and his renditions of 'Là ci darem la mano' and 'Deh, vieni alla finestra' could get any girl into bed. He sang them with melting tenderness, making compliance a thoroughly attractive prospect. My only complaint was his occasional rather cartoon-like swigging from the bottle, an exaggerated gesture to show that he lived hard. It rather belied the elegance of the portrayal otherwise. Nonetheless, all told, Mr. Okulitch made one of the better Dons I have seen on stage, suave and seductive, conveying a sense of delight in his own outrageousness.

 Daniel Okulitch as Don Giovanni and Rachel Fenlon as Zerlina

Daniel Okulitch as Don Giovanni and Rachel Fenlon as Zerlina

The production as a whole matched Mr. Okulitch’s performance. It was admirably directed by Kelly Robinson, who understands that actors must inhabit their roles and that operatic singing represents human exchange. And he understands that the director’s job is to embody the meanings inherent in Mozart, not to impose a concept on the opera that works counter to historical possibility. His Don is a transgressive aristocrat on the eve of the French Revolution, not a drug dealer in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen. I particularly liked his exploitation of the comic possibilities of the opera, without which the main character is in danger of becoming a brute.

The interactions of the characters, their blocking and movement, were natural and fluid, making good use of an excellent set. I liked its double level, the lower part allowing for more intimate exchange, and the stairs and doors allowing for a great deal of stage business. I must say, however, that I was initially puzzled then irritated by the sporadic appearance of a girl in petticoats at the edges of the stage. She was a bit obvious, but of what I’m not sure—corrupted innocence?

And the wonderful projections of Bob Bonniol, which gave a strong sense in their classic statues and architectural forms of the aristocratic domain in which much of the action takes place. The statues, being of women, need no further explanation. Particularly effective was the ending, with the faces of the Don’s world melting down as he meets his match in the stone guest, and then the flames of hell themselves. Visually, the opera was a feast.

 Katherine Whyte as Donna Anna and Colin Ainsworth as Don Ottavio

Katherine Whyte as Donna Anna and Colin Ainsworth as Don Ottavio

A character almost as interesting as the Don is his servant Leporello, his alter ego and a stand-in for the audience, our guide to response. Now he is disapproving of the Don, now amused, now envious, now sharing his identity. His two great moments occur during the catalogue aria and, just into Act 2, in the shenanigans over Donna Elvira’s maid, where he gets to act as double for Don Giovanni. The catalogue aria itself allows a curious kind of doubling—Leporello boasting for the Don, whose experience he is relating. The Don is not doing it for himself, but has disappeared and left the responsibility to another, as is his wont.

The catalogue aria would seem cruel (like so much of the humour in this opera) were it not for the folly of Donna Elvira, that mezzo-carattere—both light and serious—and the good-natured enjoyment of Leporello—well conveyed by Krisztina Szabó and Stephen Hegedus. And how well our production handled this exchange, with the shade of Joseph Losey hovering in the wings (the book that opens out like an accordion). Leporello sang with relish, as though boasting about his own exploits, and Donna Elvira looked endearingly foolish as she tried to read the outlandish catalogue of conquests.

The directing and blocking of this episode—and of the opera as a whole—were delightful, as were the acting and singing of the characters. Mr. Hegedus was convincing throughout as Leporello, mitigating much of the Don’s cruelty by bringing out the humour of the situation. Ms. Szabó as Donna Elvira was also convincing—in her vulnerability as much as her folly. Her singing and acting of 'Mi tradi quell’alma ingrata' were deeply moving. 

 Conductor Steuart Bedford

Conductor Steuart Bedford

More than matching Ms. Szabó was Katherine Whyte as Donna Anna. Her singing was doubly impressive, given the fact that Erin Wall was indisposed, and Ms. Whyte had to sing this demanding—at times almost spinto—role two nights running. Perhaps this was why the fioritura was not always perfect, but she sang beautifully and her vocal acting (as well as physical) was outstanding. Her sad reassurances to Don Ottavio that she loves him ('Non mi dir, bell’idol mio') were poignantly sung.  Zerlina was persuasively sung and acted by Rachel Fenlon; Aaron Durand was convincing as her country bumpkin fiancée; and Colin Ainsworth as Don Ottavio sang very sweetly, though not always in full control of his voice, it seemed to me.

Steuart Bedford’s conducting was refined, an elegant presentation of music that is itself elegant. At times I wanted a little more speed, a little more bite—especially to match the comic emphasis of the direction. And at times I got it. The arrival of the stone guest was as incisive as one could hope for. Speaking of the stone guest, the hollow echoing quality given the voice, by now a theatrical cliché, was nonetheless effective, otherworldly and chilling—and well sung by Giles Tomkins.

Altogether, Vancouver Opera and The Banff Centre provided us with a hugely enjoyable production of one of the greatest operas ever written, one that is not easy to present convincingly. But these characters became real for me, tantalizing, elusive, and memorable.

 

© Harvey De Roo 2014

HARVEY DE ROO taught for many years in the Department of English at Simon Fraser University. For the past eight years, he has taught opera history and appreciation in Simon Fraser University’s Continuing Studies program at Harbour Centre. He was the founding secretary of City Opera Vancouver.