The cover picture on the Opera Australia’s DVD of a 2011 production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni is rather startling. There is hunky baritone Teddy Tahu Rhodes as the Don, dressed in all-leather knee boots, studded hot pants, a black trench coat opened to reveal his admirable six-pack, topped off with a black mask and headband holding back his long black hair. Ah, one thinks, this will be a new and striking production of Don Giovanni, sexy and wild and unusual.
One is mistaken.
Oh, Rhodes provides plenty of energy and enthusiasm in his childish, decadent Don, but he is surrounded by an astonishingly dull 1991 production that could not be more conventional. Any unusual or insightful character choices? Nope. Any unusual or insightful phrasing choices? Nope. Are you hoping for revelatory set, lighting, or costume designs? In vano, in vano. I just kept wondering why on earth Opera Australia would place this gutsy and fascinating performance by Rhodes in the midst of this safe, careful performance that might well be most useful for high school student matinees.
On the good side, the singing is quite good, especially from the women. Taryn Fiebig is a lovely and touching Zerlina, her lyric soprano beautifully expressing the character’s innocence and vulnerability. Rachelle Durkin is a fine, womanly Donna Anna, singing both the long Mozartean lines and her coloratura will skill and ease. Occasionally the voice turns a bit cold and hard-edged in the upper reaches of the role, but her middle voice is creamy and flexible. I also liked Jacqueline Dark’s angry Donna Elvira, but I wished for more variety in volume (mostly loud and louder); there is more than one way to express anger in music, but Ms. Dark finds only one. She is most interesting in her softer, pleading moments.
The bass Conal Coad is a blustery, farcical Leporello; one can tell that he knows his buffo skills, but there isn’t much voice left here. Henry Choo is a standard-issue Don Ottavio, singing plaintively but without the silvery sound needed to make “Dalla sua pace” a major moment. He is also a stiff and weak actor, harming the effectiveness of his duets with Durkin’s Donna Anna. Andrew Jones is a bright spot as Masetto, with loads of personality and rapid changes of emotion. Daniel Sumegi is a stentorian and powerful Commendatore, and his final scene with the Don is the most effective in the production.
Rhodes gives a very physical, always interesting performance in the title role, an unusually playful Don at times (though at the expense of others) but at the same time his sexual obsession and his unending desire for pleasure are vividly played. His velvety baritone manages all aspects of the role with ease, though I find the voice so covered that it sometimes sounds like he’s singing through a blanket. The real tragedy of this production is that the rest of the cast simply cannot match Rhodes’ energy, commitment, and charisma. He often appears to be a refugee from a different, more interesting production.
Stage Director Goran Jarvefelt does manage to make the story clear, and opera newbies and those committed to “traditional productions” will find some enjoyment here. Carl Friedrich Oberle’s dull beige set is enlivened by his colorful costumes; Nigel Levings’ lighting seems generally too bright, and the scenes of disguised identity are thus difficult to believe.
By far the best part of this performance is the arrival of the Stone Guest. Rhodes is at his most extreme here, in a frenzy of food-and-drink driven emotion. He uses his physicality beautifully in his struggle with demons, both real and internal. His defiant descent into hell works beautifully, spurred on by Sumegi’s relentless Commendatore. Unfortunately, Coad as Leporello only scratches the surface of the character’s fear.
The performance ends with a skin-crawlingly precious curtain call in which the whole cast forms a group in the middle of the stage, hugging and back-slapping each other in a festival of self-congratulation before sending the individual singers downstage for their bow. Fortunately, Rhodes gets two solo bows, and the audience erupts.
With the great number of DVDs of Don Giovanni on the market, I certainly can’t recommend this one. I do wonder if the generally high quality of singing might make this a very workable audio CD. For my money, if you’re going to make a DVD of this or any standard repertory opera, you better imbue it with some new thinking, great singing, and interesting design elements. As Callas said when fired by Bing, “I cannot do routine.”