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Wednesday, July 11, 2012

DVD Review: The Plunder Down Under

Teddy Tahu Rhodes in an Australian Don Giovanni.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
"Does this mask make me look fat?"
Teddy Tahu Rhodes as Don Giovanni.
Photo by Branco Gaica © 2011 Opera Australia.

This DVD of Mozart's Don Giovanni, shot at the Sydney Opera House in October of 2011, preserves a 20-year old production by Opera Australia that is most noteworthy for the leading character's fashion sense--or lack thereof.

That's baritone Teddy Tahu Rhodes camping it up in a black domino mask, hot leather boots, Chelsea boy-shorts, and little else in the opening scene, as the Don goes prowling the rooftops of Seville dressed like Zorro on his way to a fetish night. All this beefcake hides the fact that Göran Järvefelt's well-worn production is, at its heart a thoroughly conventional re-telling of the Mozart-DaPonte collaboration, which captures the brilliance of Mozart's writing without breaking any major new ground.

Watching this performance, I noticed a "tunnel" effect on all the voices, most clearly heard in "Dalla su pace," Don Ottavio's aria in the first act. This is probably caused by Carl Friedrich Oberle's dull set, a series of wood-and-faux-plaster chambers that look left over from an old Jean-Pierre Ponelle seem to swallow up the voices instead of allowing them to project out into the house. Some of the singers (notably Rachelle Durkin, the Donna Anna) have the vocal fortitude to get their voices out into the house, but many suffer from this effect.

Mr. Rhodes has the magnetic sexuality of Giovanni down pat, with a dark, smoldering stage presence that lets the character come closer to scoring than most Dons. (He comes closest with Donna Anna (Rachelle Durkin) getting into a tight clinch before her Dad shows up, and spends some time rolling on the floorboards with Zerlina (Taryn Fiebig) at the end of "La ci darem la mano.") Less appealing though, is the wooly quality in his bass-baritone voice, although that might be attributed to the acoustics.

Leporello remains the most interesting role in this opera. Here, Conal Coad plays the faithful servant as much older and more experienced than his master, as the weary caretaker instead of an eager apprentice. His baritone is much crisper than Mr. Rhodes, with razor-sharp diction that makes the "Catalogue Song" a first-act highlight. Otherwise, Leporello seems to spend much of the opera moving luggage, as he is stuck schlepping an enormous suitcase (presumably containing the rest of the Don's leather wardrobe) on and offstage throughout the evening.

Ms. Durkin chooses an over-dramatized approach to Donna Anna, which works with her own darky sexual stage presence. The soprano may onot have the most memorable voice, but she absolutely blows the doors off of "Or sai, chi l'onore," starting this difficult aria in a prone position and then rising physically and vocally to a tremendous climax. This raises the energy level of the whole show and things improve from this point.

That high energy level continues into the complicated Act I finale, where the Opera Australia musicians make good use of the multi-level set to create Mozart's tricky antoiphonal effect of three orchestras playing three different parts at once. The climax of this act also pushes the young lovers Masetto (Andrew Jones, blustery but funny) and Zerlina (the charming Ms. Feibig) to the forefront of the action as the Don attempts to assault the not-so-virtuous maiden. Thunder and lightning effects add to the drama of the finale.

If you've seen Don Giovanni enough times, you're probably aware that Donna Elvira (Jacqueline Dark) is a problematic character. The mezzo-soprano must decide whether to play her as if she is still in love with the rogue, or just angry. Ms. Dark plays the character s the most likely of the three women in this opera to stage a return to the famous Catalogue. She reacted with genuine excitement when Leporello reels off the list of romantic conquests. Her comic scenes in Act II with the disguised servant are touching and aptly played.

The decline from libertine to drunken sot is accelerated in the second finale, which incorporates some familiar ideas (the Commendatore's coffin as dining-table, the back walls of the ugly set being knocked down at the statue's entrance) to create an effective, if clichéd damnation, undermined by leathery singing from Daniel Sumegi. The best moment: Mr. Rhodes goes down through the trap-door to hell, laughing all the way. As the curtain rises on the finale, he is sitting blithely on the window-sill as if nothing had happened.

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