Don Giovanni (Opera Queensland)
QPAC, The Playhouse
October 19 – November 3
Opera Queensland’s “Don Giovanni” promises to be a striking production and truly, the aesthetics of the work are impressive, beginning with opening projections that allow the exhilarating score’s initial overture to be appropriately showcased. Although they are less clear when used in the show proper, they still add depth to the story’s dramatic themes and working class Victorian London setting.
There is drama too in the opera’s initial pivotal scene, when after leaving the bedroom of soon-to-be married Donna Anna (Eva Kong in her Opera Queensland debut), the titular Giovanni (Duncan Rock) is confronted by and kills her father, the Commendatore (Andrew Collis). From these early hues of death, things warm as Hayley Sugars struts on stage in an opulent orange ensemble; Anna Cordingley’s contemporary Victoria costume designs represent another highlight with Giovanni’s lush blue coat making him prominent against ensemble shades. A heavily raked stage adds dimension and lighting creates some stunning visual imagery, such as when our antihero is silhouetted against a doorway. So striking are the show’s visuals, that the aesthetic on stage often distracts from follow of the surtitles being shown above (The Mozart opera is sung in Italian with English surtitles).
Fortunately, the story is a simple one. Giovanni, a wealthy young and debauched nobleman, travels the world seducing women and casting them aside. After he kills Donna Anna’s father he mocks a statue of the slain father. To his surprise, the statue later appears as a ghost who gives Giovanni one last chance to repent. He refuses and is sent to hell as punishment.
The comedic opera about the Don Juan’s sexual exploits (the opera serves as a version of the Don Juan legend), is filled with familiar motifs of the Shakespearean sort with attempted window wooing, masquerading and disguised identities, and a supernatural haunting. However, given its misogynism, it is a problematic undertaking, especially in recent times in which the misconduct of men has been so in the spotlight. Its unprincipled protagonist is a serial womaniser and rapist, hunting women throughout Europe, and while this production is said to be set in the context of 2018 and the #metoo movement, Giovanni’s philandering is still celebrated as an art form in numbers such as ‘Madamina, il catalogo è questo’, in which his servant Lepereeo (Shawn Brown) clownishly lists the aristocratic playboy’s catalogue of European conquests (1003 in Spain!) as evidence of his insincerity to Donna Elvira.
Conducted by Johannes Fritzsc, The Queensland Symphony Orchestra is high-calibre as always, expertly infusing each supporting character with their own musical motif. Of particularly note is the exhilaratingly dramatic sounds of its darkly rhythmic final number soundtracking of Giovanni’s descent into hell. British/Australian bass baritone and rising international star Duncan Rock, who has previously sung the role of Don Giovanni several times, makes his Australian principal debut as the long-haired Lothario, roaming the stage with an alluring appeal in contradiction to this unscrupulous, scoundrel behaviour. With shirt off for portions of the show he is more Jamie Fraser muscle than traditional opera lead. And he is not only one on stage sans some items of clothing….
Under Lindy Hume’s direction, this Giovanni’s descent into hell is given a #metoo take as a group of naked and semi-naked volunteer women, representing the ‘avenging furies’ drag him to his death as part of the punishment for his life. While this creates a spectacle for consideration, however, it doesn’t necessarily work, coming across as a heavy-handed inclusion for provocation’s sake.
QPAC’s Playhouse Theatre setting offers “Don Giovanni” audiences a move intimate experience than Opera Queensland’s most recent productions. It is a long show, as operas are, however, while it is not of a grand scale, as a work that is considered by many to be Mozart’s greatest, it is still offers a satisfying enough experience, particularly for those new to the story and genre alike. While its attempted #metoo take may not resonate due to its tacked-on feel, it does still provide a catalyst for discussion and ultimately the quality of both its Opera Queensland cast and Queensland Symphony Orchestra musicianship, and the aesthetics of its production, largely transcend the disappointment of its unrealised dramatic intents.