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MOZART: Don Giovanni

spacer Durkin, Dark, Fiebig; Rhodes, Choo, Coad, A. Jones, Sumegi; Opera Australia Chorus, Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra, Wigglesworth. Production: Järvefelt. Opera Australia OPOZ56024BD (Blu-ray), OPOZ56023DVD (2 DVDs), OPOZ56025CD (3 CDs), 176 mins., subtitled

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Nellie Melba, Florence Austral, Joan Sutherland, Baz Luhrmann: since the nineteenth century, Australia has sent quite a few distinguished operatic ambassadors to the Northern Hemisphere. Yet for most of us, operatic culture down under remains virtually unknown. Filmed at the Sydney Opera House in October 2011, this Don Giovanni from Opera Australia comes off as far behind the theatrical curve, which is not necessarily a bad thing. With Mark Wigglesworth on the podium, the music sounds visceral but unkempt, and very loud. Is this typical?

Starring as Mozart’s rakehell, in black from head to toe, Teddy Tahu Rhodes conjures up what might have been had Sting or David Beckham opted for a career in opera. Square-jawed, loose-limbed and six-foot-three, the rugby-loving, iron-pumping former accountant from Christchurch, New Zealand, is a Billy Budd, Stanley Kowalski and Joseph De Rocher (Dead Man Walking) from central casting. As documented here, his rugged baritone boasts no great palette of colors. But if the mic does Tahu Rhodes no favors, with the camera, it’s love at first sight. He flies onstage in an unbuttoned riding coat over short shorts and high boots, flashing plenty of thigh and a belly as taut as a drum. In his duet with Zerlina, his wide eyes and pearly smile radiate Arcadian innocence. Charmed, she crowns him with her bridal wreath. Sweetly, he returns the favor with his three-cornered hat. But at the Dionysian final banquet, wine spills from his lips like sacrificial blood.

In the circumstances, Giovanni’s masquerade as Leporello is more implausible than usual: portly, short, downtrodden and worn of voice, Conal Coad’s manservant bears an intriguing family resemblance to Don Quixote’s long-suffering Sancho Panza. Henry Choo’s bland rendition of “Dalla sua pace” will not change the minds of Mozarteans who think of Don Ottavio as Mr. Cellophane. (The absence of Ottavio’s “Il mio tesoro” is but one instance in which the performance follows not the original Prague score but Mozart’s revisions for the Vienna premiere.) Andrew Jones cuts a winning figure as Masetto but shouts nonstop until beaten up; then he whines. Daniel Sumegi blasts a wobbly way through the Commendatore’s music, his timbre incongruously romantic.

The women are more impressive. A blonde beauty to set beside Nicole Kidman, Rachelle Durkin’s electric Donna Anna slashes through the action in perpetual motion; her bright, lean soprano flashes like a rapier. Raven-haired, plush of silhouette, with a rich, dusky instrument to match, Jacqueline Dark’s Donna Elvira revels in mature sensuality; the first statistic from Leporello’s catalogue (640 in Italy!) elicits a lusty laugh that speaks volumes. Taryn Fiebig plays Zerlina as a cool, chiming china doll, seesawing between innocence and calculation, and more pitiful in defeat than many.

The director of record is Göran Järvefelt, a rising star who died at forty-two in 1989, three years after the premiere of this production at Houston Grand Opera. The revival before us — meticulously rehearsed by Matthew Barclay — recalls classic stagings by the midcentury masters Ingmar Bergman and Giorgio Strehler. Carl Friedrich Oberle’s uncluttered, handsomely proportioned eighteenth-century atrium gives the singers plenty of entrances and lookouts to work with, and the costumes evoke the period with flair. Still, we may wonder how accurately this revival reflects Järvefelt’s intent.

A video from Opera Australia’s premiere run in 1991 (available on Kultur and excerpted on YouTube) shows that while the grand gestures of the production have been religiously preserved, the new players give the old playbook inflections of their own. Viva la libertà! They act and breathe with the music, as they should. The walls come tumbling down like the chandelier in Phantom of the Opera, as they must. And somehow, everything fits. spacer

MATTHEW GUREWITSCH

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Current Issue: October 2014 — VOL. 79, NO. 4