Stage Door Review 2019

Don Giovanni

Tuesday, November 5, 2019


by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, directed by Marshall Pynkoski

Opera Atelier, Ed Mirvish Theatre, Toronto

October 31-November 9, 2019

Don Giovanni: ”Lasciar le donne! Sai ch'elle per me son necessarie più del pan che mangio, più dell'aria che spiro!”

Opera Atelier is currently reviving its production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni that it premiered in 2011. The revival is a further exploration by director Marshall Pynkoski that Don Giovanni is rightly regarded as an opera buffa, or comic opera, just as Mozart labelled it on his autograph score. The programme even features a close-up of this designation on its cover. So convincing is Pynkoski’s presentation of the opera in this way, with such close attention to da Ponte’s libretto and clues in Mozart’s music, that other interpretations that try to view the opera as a grand tragedy or a grotesque satire simply seem wrong-headed at best.

One key support for Pynkoski’s insistence on Don Giovanni as an opera buffa are the remnants of commedia dell’arte still present in the libretto such as the usual two pairs of innamorati (Donna Anna and Don Ottavio, Zerlina and Masetto), the character of the old man Pantalone (the Commendatore), the braggart lover Scaramouche (Don Giovanni) and his hungry, long-suffering but wily servant Arlecchino (Leporello). By pointing to the heritage of these characters, Pynkoski is able more clearly to demonstrate the audacity with which da Ponte, and his sources going back to Tirso de Molina (1579-1648), has altered them.

The Pantalone is not merely ridiculed but killed in Act 1 only to return as a demonic figure in Act 2 seeking revenge. The Arlecchino figure remains remarkably the same except that instead of merely carrying out his master’s orders in hope of pay or food, this Arlecchino, though he claims to abhor his master’s way of life, also seems vicariously to enjoy his audacity.

The greatest alteration of a role is that of Scaramouche in the form of Don Giovanni. Unlike the traditional Scaramouche who brags about conquests he has not made, Don Giovanni boasts of the many he has. He says he is in love with all women. A modern point of view would see nothing more in the Don but a serial rapist with a sex addiction and might wonder why anyone would want to celebrate such a figure.

The reason why Don Giovanni has been so celebrated goes beyond his seducing thousands of women as dutifully listed in Leporello’s famous “Catalogue Aria” ("Madamina, il catalogo è questo"). Don Giovanni has not only seduced women but has killed any man who stands in his way. As a serial rapist and murderer, he consciously lives in opposition to all moral codes, uses his status as a nobleman to justify his superiority to others and, worst of all, refuses ever to repent, even though, as a Catholic, repentance even at the very last moment would save him from damnation. Thus, like Faust, the other iconic anti-hero who first came to life in the Renaissance, Don Juan, aka Don Giovanni, lives a life that tests the limits of what is permissible to human beings. Faust flouts rules in the metaphysical realm, Don Juan in the physical realm. (Early on, playwrights saw the parallel between the two figures, viz. Christian Dietrich Grabbe’s 1829 play Don Juan und Faust.)

Though authors treating the Don Juan figure consistently find his actions abhorrent (Molière in his Dom Juan of 1665 treats him as yet another of his repellant monomaniacs), toward the end of the 18th century authors begin to see in Don Juan as in Faust a rebellion against conventional morality and God’s law that is a type of amoral heroism. It is this view that elevates Don Juan’s behaviour out of the realm of simple criminality.

At the same time, as is especially evident in Molière’s version, we meet Don Juan when his luck in escaping justice has just run out. Though famed as a womanizer, in da Ponte’s opera Don Giovanni does not succeed in having his way with any woman he pursues. His attempted rape of Donna Anna is interrupted by her father, the Commendatore, and his attempted seduction of Zerlina is interrupted so many times the effect becomes comic. Thus, da Ponte shows us Don Giovanni’s methods but not their ultimate success.

Da Ponte also shows, as does Molière, that Don Giovanni’s obsession with the conquest of women has so completely taken over his mind that he has lost his humanity to his addiction. When Leporello advises his master to give up women, he says, “Lasciar le donne! Sai ch'elle per me son necessarie più del pan che mangio, più dell'aria che spiro!” (“Leave women! You know they are more necessary to me than the bread I eat or the air I breathe!”). It is clear that Don Giovanni is no longer in control of his behaviour so that, paradoxically, he seems most human and most heroic, when he refuses to repent and willingly accepts damnation as payment for his crimes.

All of this informs Pynkoski’s vision of Don Giovanni and is what makes his interpretation the fullest and most profound you are ever likely to see. It may be that in an effort to convince us of the comedic nature of the action that Pynkoski indulges in rather too much roughhousing among characters and characters do seem to be thrown to the ground on a fairly regular basis. But Pynkoski’s insights far outweigh any such criticism.

Not only does he convince us that Mozart made no mistake in his designation of the opera’s genre, but Pynkoski also frequently underscores the metatheatrical nature of the opera. The action begins with two dancers holding up signs announcing the title. For each major change of scene dancers tug at (non-functioning) ribbons as if manually raising and lowering scenic elements of Gerard Gauci’s painterly set. In the garden scenes when characters must hide behind a bush they pick up the flat bush-like set element that has the act and scene number painted on its stand. During the banquet scene Pynkoski does not use an on-stage band as is usual but has Leporello dispute directly with David Fallis, the actual conductor of the orchestra. And at the end, Leporello does not crawl from under a table to meet the other amazed characters but rather crawls from under a drop that has fallen to separate the Don’s marvellously conceived scene of destruction from the moralistic epilogue that ends the opera.

I regret I did not see this production when it was first presented in 2011 with its costumes designed by Martha Mann in gorgeous autumnal colours. Yet, of the any Don Giovannis I’ve experienced, the present cast may be the very best I’ve ever seen. Central, of course, is the Don Giovanni of Douglas Williams, the American bass-baritone familiar from such previous OA productions the The Marriage of Figaro (2017) and Idomineo (2019). Williams has fully embraced OA’s form of stylized acting and made it his own. The has the striking good looks of a model (and has modelled before) and sports a powerfully expressive voice.

His Don Giovanni is much more deeply thought-through than those of other more famous singers. Williams plays the character as if his licentious lifestyle has destroyed his humanity and even destroyed his will. His Don seems no longer to act on desire but on pure reflex. Williams sings one of the faster-ever Champagne Arias (“Fin ch’han dal vino”) and even the lovely mandolin serenade “Deh, vieni alla finestra” as if more for his own pleasure than for those these songs are addressed to. Nevertheless, when the Don finally confronts the Statue of the Commendatore and willingly take his hand in full knowledge of the consequences, Williams’s voice takes on a decidedly heroic ring as if this encounter with his ultimate fate brings out the last remnants of humanity and bravery within him.

Stephan Hegedus’ Leporello comes as a complete surprise. Hegedus has played so many aged, wise nobles for OA in the past, we have unfairly begun to identify the singer with his roles. As Leporello, Hegedus is the spriest, most agile member of the cast with a real flair for physical comedy. He and Williams are ideally paired since, for a change, the two are so similar in height that the Don’s and Leporello’s exchange of clothing to deceive others is completely believable.

The two bass-baritones not only have a great rapport but are also a fine vocal pair since while Williams’s voice is warmer, Hegedus’ is more forceful. Hegedus sings the Catalogue Aria not as a showpiece but a crucial clue to Leporello’s character. Hegedus shows that not only does Leporello enjoy thoroughly humiliating Donna Elvira with his master’s huge number of previous conquests but he takes a vicarious pleasure in his master’s dubious achievements. Showing that Leporello disdains others as much as his master goes a long way to explaining why this servant has stayed with such a dissolute tyrant for so long.

Over time OA favourite soprano Carla Huhtanen’s voice has deepened and become even more expressive. In 2011 she sang Zerlina. Now she has moved on to the more complex role of Donna Elvira. Her portrayal of this role mines both comedy and tragedy. Alone among the thousands of women Don Giovanni has betrayed, Donna Elvira seeks to hold the reprobate to his promise of marriage. In pursuing the Don with such overwhelming zeal, Huhtanen shows Donna Anna to be as obsessive and narcissistic as the Don himself. This is the first production I have seen where the parallel between the two was so clearly marked. Yet, while this Donna Elvira may be as “pazza” as Leporello and Don Giovanni say she is, the deep feeling Huhtanen brings to Elvira’s arias such as “Ah, chi mi dice mai”, reveals the humanity she she has lost in her hopeless quest.

Meghan Lindsay sang Donna Anna in 2011 and does so again, but as with Huhtanen the passage of time has only increased the breadth and especially the power of her soprano. These qualities only make Lindsay’s portrayal of Anna has become stronger and turns her many arias of mourning into expressions of the only unfeigned emotions in the entire opera. For his part, Colin Ainsworth, who has begun essaying roles from the Romantic repertoire, does not play Anna’s beloved Don Ottavio as a milquetoast in comparison with Don Giovanni. The fervour of Ainsworth’s lovely account “Dalla sua pace la mia dipende” dispels any notion of Ottavio’s equivocation.

As the peasant couple, Mireille Asselin is as bright, clear-voiced a Zerlina as one might expect. Pynkoski has the Don dangle a bagful of money in front of her so that any submission that Zerlina shows him can be viewed not as Zerlina’s falling for the Don’s charm but as an example of her own wiliness in setting her marriage with Masetto on a firmer financial foundation. With his warm baritone Olivier Laquerre does very well at playing Masetto as perhaps the dimmest and least calculating of the opera’s characters. Gustav Andreassen with his sepulchral bass is suitably frightening as the Statue of the Commendatore.

One of many advantages of OA’s Don Giovanni over all others is that choreographer Jeannette Lajeunesse Zingg has restored all the dances usually cut from the work. Not only are these gracefully planned and executed but Zingg has had them incorporate actual dance steps of the period. As is always the case with OA the mingling of dancers and singers creates huge benefits in creating a stage picture that is as visually as it is aurally lively. The way Zingg and Pynkoski have imagined Don Giovanni’s demise is elegant but absolutely thrilling. They have the Don step into the centre of an enormous square of red cloth that dancers at each corner shimmer and raise until the Don is engulfed in “flame”.

Under conductor David Fallis, Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra gives a crisp account of the score with most tempi taking faster than usual. It must be admitted that the orchestra simply does not not project the lushness in the Ed Mirvish Theatre that it does in the Elgin Theatre. The large orchestra is strung out in a line only three deep for the entire length of the stage and into one of the loges. This means that the brass all grouped together at one end sound as impressive as usual and that Charlotte Nediger gracefully accompanying the recitatives on the fortepiano sounds especially crisp. But the downside is that since the carpeted floor of the Ed Mirvish Theatre does not function as a sounding board as does the floor of the Elgin, the strings sound unusually dry and thin. Those longing to hear Tafelmusik to its best advantage will have to hear them accompany OA’s The Resurrection by Handel at the wood-lined Koerner Hall in April 2020 or hear any one their concerts in their home at the Trinity-St. Paul’s Centre.

In spite of this, Pynkoski’s vision of Don Giovanni and its near ideal realization by the entire cast is one that will spoil you forever. No bizarre imposed directorial concept and no form of direction that has not seriously evaluated every gesture of the characters on stage and their motivation will ever come close to Pynkoski’s gift of bringing out the wonders that are already inherent in the opera’s libretto and music. If you wish to see the best Don Giovanni you may ever see, this it is it.

Christopher Hoile

Note: This review is a Stage Door exclusive.

Photo: Meghan Lindsay as Donna Anna, Colin Ainsworth as Don Ottavio, Stephen Hegedus as Leporello, Olivier Laquerre as Masetto, Carla Huhtanen as Donna Elvira, Douglas Williams as Don Giovanni and Mireille Asselin as Zerlina; Meghan Lindsay as Donna Anna and Douglas Williams as Don Giovanni; Douglas Williams as Don Giovanni, Carla Huhtanen as Donna Elvira, Colin Ainsworth as Don Ottavio and Meghan Lindsay as Donna Annaand the cast of Don Giovanni. © 2019 Bruce Zinger.

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