The Decrepit Decadent Abyss: the shadow of Don Giovanni
Is this the best Don Giovanni that Australia has to offer? The Don Giovanni that Opera Australia is offering up perhaps is not. Despite the triumph of its design, in this dark and gloomy production many subtleties got lost in the daunting, dwarfing hollows of the dungeon-like underbelly of the stage. With promises of thrilling sexual romps and an anti-hero of mythic proportions, performed by a stellar cast, the lavish production fell a bit below its own expectations.
Popular crossover star Teddy Tahu Rhodes starred in the leading role of morally corrupt womanizer Don Giovanni, based on the life and times of Don Juan, in the Mozart standard opera. He was unlikeable and horrifying, disappointingly to the point where he was not quite believable as a charismatic, virile ladies’ man. Instead he came across as a brooding, phantom-like figure. Rhodes’ Giovanni waded through the thick atmosphere surrounding him, using and abusing women without remorse. Perhaps tortured by his actions, he seemed weighed down by a dragging unhappiness. He was all anti, no hero. Rhodes’ classic charisma was a bit lacking, detracting from his efforts to convey the sexy, energetic charmer.
The standout performance of the night was Shane Lowrencev’s Leporello. His offbeat character bumbled around the stage with an odd charm, and he was always a commanding presence. His impression of Rhodes’ Giovanni prompted a lot of laughs from the audience; funny for its broad comedic appeal and also perhaps for the way it seemed to ironically poke fun at the overwhelmingly serious interpretation of Giovanni we were witnessing. Giovanni’s stage presence was overshadowed by his comedic sidekick’s antics in many scenes.
Highly accomplished opera star Emma Matthews as Donna Anna gave a strong dramatic performance, and she was able to show off her high colouratura range in this role. That is when her voice is at its best, and boy does she do it well. However, some of the other singers were underwhelming in their vocally and dramatically challenging roles.
The sets were nothing short of exquisite. From the first dramatic rising of the curtain, the forced perspective design was strikingly, hauntingly effective. The towering columns and shifting walls were highly dramatic and visually stimulating, simulating the great labrynthian dimensions of the Freudian mind. The audience found themselves in awe of the cold, haunted, abandoned tectonic plates of rock and marble. The way the stage was lit was impressive, too, shining through the cracks and illuminating the cold, hard truths inside the skeletal rocky cage. At the opening of the production, as the overture played, the roof of the stage slowly opened down, bringing down a huge, plunging staircase with a clouded white light at the top. Was this the stairway to heaven, or to hell? The answer to this question would become clear – we were dwelling in a pergatorian psychological hellscape, where disorder and chaos reigns.
The sexy, wild parties on stage lacked the energy to pull off the orgy-like scenes. It was more uncomfortable than sexy; more dystopian than thrilling. Unfortunately, there was little sexual chemistry throughout the production. Giovanni seemed to bring more of a tone of sadness wherever he roamed than excitement.
The dramatic scene when Don Giovanni was dragged into the pits of hell was the biggest thrill of the night. Jud Arthur as the Commendatore was wonderfully chilling and truly scary as he and his disturbing, clawing minions facilitated Giovanni’s downfall. It was a dramatic triumph of design and horror. The tragedy of the climax was absent, however, as I found myself cheering for Giovanni’s demise at the hands of, presumably, the lost souls he had robbed of innocence and life.
The Don Giovanni Opera Australia served up was a sad tale of a shadow of a man, lonely and irredeemable; truly mad, bad and dangerous to know. However, the performances and the singing could have been stronger. If this production was truly the best we had to offer in this country, I would be content; but I believe that we can, and therefore should, strive for perfection. The story of a relentless womanizer wreaking havoc with every conquest, taking advantage of and destroying every woman he can find, may not be the story that new audiences need to see.