Playhouse Theatre, QPAC
October 19, 2018

Hats off, gentlemen, a feminist!

In thus adapting the first line of Schumann’s review of Chopin’s variations on the duet Là ci darem la mano from Don Giovanni, I am not referring to the director of this production, Lindy Hume, but to Mozart. For while the claims to feminism of the director, made explicit both in the program for the performance and in the scene with which she closed the opera, are undisputed, those of Mozart are perhaps not, and deserve some attention.

Andrew Collis, Shaun Brown and Duncan Rock. Photo © Stephanie Do Rozario

Mozart, I think uniquely among opera composers, was deeply concerned with the equality and the rights of women. In Idomeneo he replaces the tyrannical rule of a man with the Enlightenment ideal of an equal king and queen. In The Magic Flute he replaces the patriarchy of the freemasonry with the couple, Tamino and Pamina, so outraging the freemasons of Vienna that they murdered him for it. In The Marriage of Figaro a clever woman outwits a conventional tyrant. (Only in Così fan tutte can a charge of misogyny perhaps begin to stick). In Don Giovanni we see explored the notion that, unlike Nero in Monteverdi’s The Coronation of Poppea, a man as completely amoral as the Don cannot be allowed to survive but must be dragged down to hell.

And yet… Mozart didn’t finish this opera there. The six principal sufferers of Don Giovanni’s completely unbridled lust sing a rather over-cheerful sextet rejoicing in his demise. Ever since he wrote the opera, this ending has raised questions, especially: Can one really write off the trail of wreckage produced by such a man by singing with relief, now he’s being punished, that everything is all right? As the #MeToo movement has highlighted, traumas inflicted by such behaviour don’t just vanish with the perpetrator. The nineteenth century thought so too, and at that time productions usually finished with the Commendatore dragging the Don down to hell, leaving out the final sextet. Hume’s production followed this practice too, which, as in the nineteenth century, makes a moral judgement; but in her reading it is not the Commendatore but the 1003 seduced or raped women (from Spain alone) who reappear, naked, to wreak their vengeance on this monster. This was a significant coup de théâtre, although its effect was somewhat vitiated by the spoiler circulating in the press before the performance, and also the fact that Mozart’s music has to do exclusively with the Commentadore at this point. (Further, I was not entirely convinced that Don Giovanni would have altogether disliked such a hell…)

Eva Kong. Photo © Stephanie Do Rozario

However, in general the events of the music were faithfully reflected on the stage in this production, and this to me is the bottom line for opera productions. The conductor, Johannes Fritzsch, understands this score inside out, and it was clear that discussions between him and Hume had taken place which resulted in all the twists and turns of the music, whether obvious or subtle, welding with the stage action. This is important in any opera, but in such a complex piece as Don Giovanni it is crucial. This production made me more than ever aware of the fluidity between stage and music which is Mozart’s most extraordinary achievement in this piece. Aria blends with recitative, and both with ensembles, in way not paralleled even in the opera’s immediate predecessor, The Marriage of Figaro. Especially in the first act, the pace of the drama perfectly matched the music, and was a single line from start to finish.

The cast reacted enthusiastically to all this, and the acting of all the principals was enthralling throughout. The three main women, who represent what Kierkegaard called the three stages of the erotic, were vivid characters, and vividly different from each other. Eva Kong’s dramatic soprano characterised Donna Anna as bitter, resentful and confused, and showed convincingly how her retreat into mourning for her father’s death was a pretext for avoiding the attentions of her insipid, egotistic, boring fiancé Don Ottavio. The high point of her performance was her gorgeous second act aria, Non mi dir. Hayley Sugars used the many different vocal colours at her command to depict Donna Elvira’s descent from affronted, scornful, and definitely Spanish dueña to a woman in a state of total, Brechtian, sexual dependency. And Katie Stenzel’s lighter, almost mercurial voice admirably suited her as Zerlina, for whom Don Giovanni’s seduction, to which she consents, is just an aberration. In both her arias, Batti, batti and especially Vedrai, carino, with its melting clarinets, she expressed a deep tenderness with a seeming vocal artlessness.

Eva Kong, Virgilio Marina and Hayley Sugars. Photo © Stephanie Do Rozario

Shaun Brown played Leporello for laughs, (what else can one do with this character?) in which the audience is uneasily complicit. Samuel Piper has more honey in his sound than Masetto’s character usually demands, which made the audience somewhat more sympathetic with his egoistic jealousy than is usually the case. Virgilio Marino has a voice far stronger than the character of Ottavio merits. In the opening act his aria Dalla sua pace was cut, but I would have been less surprised to hear him burst out with E lucevan le stelle (which indeed I would love to hear him sing). In fact, he and Eva Kong could have stepped out of any Puccini opera.

All their virtues are useless, however, without a great Don Giovanni. And Duncan Rock’s portrayal of the title role indeed merits that adjective. I have seen this opera over fifty years, and I don’t think I have ever seen a performance of the role I’ve admired more. Vocally enormous yet controlled, and capable of the most melting pianissimo (for example in the serenade accompanied by a mandolin), and absolutely commanding in character, he bestrode the stage like a colossus. His conscience unperturbed by his countless female conquests, Rock showed with devastating clarity how Don Giovanni becomes undone by his murder of the Commendatore. This particular consequence of his complete amorality he has not taken into account. In his confrontation with the statue (multiply portrayed by images of the singer Andrew Collis sweeping across the screen) he is afraid, uncertain, yet driven by his ego not to run away. Precise nuances of vocal timing and colour conveyed this in a few seconds.

Sam Piper and Katie Stenzel. Photo © Stephanie Do Rozario

This performance had a few weaknesses, but these were surprisingly basic. Despite Fritzsch’s wonderful pacing and control of the orchestra, the upper wind and strings played unsettlingly sharp for the first half-hour before they settled down. And my other reservation concerns the singing style. Perhaps my ears have been spoilt by constant attendance at Pinchgut Opera’s performances, with their pure, limpid voices, but I found the vibrato of all three women not well suited to Mozart, and also, as I have already hinted, that of Virgilio Marino. Tellingly, of these four, only Hayley Sugars lists a single opera written before Mozart in her biography. I would like to hear Mozart operas which come from the vantage point of the eighteenth century rather than the nineteenth. After all, that was the one that Mozart knew.

To some extent this is a simple matter of taste. But there is one important aspect of the musical texture of Mozart which too much vibrato renders impotent. In Puccini, for example, you have twenty violins playing along with the singer, so you know what the notes are irrespective of the singers’ vibrato. But Mozart does not normally double his vocal lines in the orchestra much. Even in arias, too much vibrato makes the relation between the tune and the bass hard to absorb without effort. But in ensembles it is sometimes actually impossible to tell what notes are being sung.

Avenging Furies and Duncan Rock. Photo © Stephanie Do Rozario

And it is in ensembles that Mozart far outshines even his nearest rival, Benjamin Britten. The importance of this in the dramatic structure of the piece was well understood in this performance. It is in the ensembles that most of those extraordinary harmonic twists and turns, which underpin changing action on the stage, occur. Dramaturgically this was a wonderful night – and it is not only feminists who will appreciate Hume’s work. The engagement with contemporary issues is one of the great strengths of opera as a genre.

And Duncan Rock is spectacular. Don’t miss this production!

Opera Queensland’s Don Giovanni is at QPAC until November 3