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Beautiful but Abridged

Ed Mirvish Theatre
10/31/2019 -  & November 2*, 3, 8, 9, 2019
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Don Giovanni, K. 527
Meghan Lindsay (Donna Anna), Carla Huhtanen (Donna Elvira), Mireille Asselin (Zerlina), Douglas Williams (Don Giovanni), Stephen Hegedus (Leporello), Colin Ainsworth (Don Ottavio), Olivier Laquerre (Masetto), Gustav Andreassen (Commendatore), Artists of Atelier Ballet
Chorus of the University of Toronto Schola Cantorum, Members of the Choir of the Theatre of Early Music, Daniel Taylor (chorus master), Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra, David Fallis (conductor)
Marshall Pynkoski (stage director), Gerald Gauci (set designer), Martha Mann Southgate (set designer), Michelle Ramsay (lighting), Jeannette Lajeunesse Zingg (choreography)

(© Bruce Zinger)

Founded in 1985 by Marshall Pynkoski and Jeannette Lajeunesse Zing, Opera Atelier (OA) specializes in baroque works, emphasizing the original early 17th century notion of opera as a marriage of multiple arts, especially vocal music and dance. OA is one of Canada’s most successful musical exports, taking its productions on tour to La Scala, Château de Versailles, the Glimmerglass Festival and the Far East. In 1996, I had the pleasure of seeing Opera Atelier’s production of Don Giovanni. I was dumbfounded by stage director Marshall Pynkoski’s vision of the work. It was the first production I had seen that truly captured the spirit of Mozart and Da Ponte. The reason was simple: Pynkoski understood that this opera was described by its composer as an opera buffa and classified as a dramma giocoso. In this early production, the opera’s protagonists were transformed into commedia dell’arte stock characters, such as Arlecchino, Colombina, Brighella, Pantalone, Scaramuccia. It worked wonderfully, the result being that Donna Anna’s over-the-top histrionics took on another dimension. In “Don Ottavio, son morta...Or sai che l’onore,” Donna Anna was sublimely tragic as well as comical, hysterically exhorting her fiancé to avenge her dead father, while she’s seen grinning under her mask. Don Giovanni is still staged by many directors as a tragedy, and as such, it can be too intense and even tedious. But it’s this constant change from dramatic to comical situations that is the essence of this dramma giocoso that allow the music to breathe.

I was curious how Pynkoski’s vision had changed a quarter century later. The spirit of commedia dell’arte was still partially there but it was sublimated to its essence. Gone are Colombina and Arlecchino, perhaps too dainty for a North American public. Despite several reservations, this was a highly theatrical and effective production, centered around American baritone Douglas Williams, oozing with charisma and sex appeal. How could any woman resist this tall, handsome man with the looks of a cinematic heartthrob and a sensual baritone voice? With the surprising exception of a few words where double and single consonants were confused, his Italian diction was impeccable, e.g. “strapazzato,” “prosciutti,” “pene” were wrongly pronounced as “stapasato,” “prosciuti,” “penne,” the last utterly hilarious for the few who understand Italian. However, this was a minor detail, especially in North America. Williams completely assimilated the self-confident yet sinewy posture, walk and gestures of a young Mediterranean male in seduction mode.

Stephen Hegedus has a natural comic verve and portrayed Leporello masterfully. The fact that his physique was similar to Williams’ allowed for the scenes where master and servant swap roles to be credible. Though some believe in Leporello as Don Giovanni’s alter ego and hence favour the two having similar voices, I prefer them to have distinguishable voices, as in this production. Colin Ainsworth’s Don Ottavio was ideal dramatically: noble and somewhat aloof but not a pompous fool as often portrayed. His natural elegance helped define the character. Vocally, he sang with style and refinement. His diction is impeccable but his voice got tired towards the end of his aria “Dalla sua pace.” Olivier Laquerre’s Masetto was not of the same high standard as the rest of the cast. His voice is peculiar and his Italian diction not sufficiently good for Mozart, where the recitatives are all-important. On the positive side, these quirks may be one way of outlining Leporello’s humble station. Gustav Andreassen’s Commendatore lacked the needed authority, in both the opening duel and the crucial dinner scene.

According to some, the three women in Don Giovanni represent three aspects of the Eternal Feminine, an insight not lost on Jacques Offenbach in his Les Contes d’Hoffmann, that opera itself a subtle clin d’œil to Don Giovanni. (This connection was brilliantly understood by Robert Carsen in his production on both works for La Scala in 2011-2012). The lofty Donna Anna, the tender Donna Elvira and the earthy peasant Zerlina. Pynkoski’s conception of Anna and Zerlina was in this vein and it was quite powerful. Alas, he seems to have little affection for Elvira, whom he portrays as possessive and petty, a bourgeoise spinster in the making, intent on grasping a potential husband. This is not Da Ponte’s vision of Donna Elvira. Meghan Lindsay as Donna Anna was vocally and dramatically superlative: secure high notes, excellent diction, beautiful phrasing and strong stage presence. Mireille Asselin’s Zerlina was charming, much stronger in character than usually portrayed. Her light lyric soprano contrasted well with Meghan Lindsay’s majestic dramatic coloratura. She was more effective in “Batti, batti, o bel Masetto” than in “Vedrai carino.” Carla Huhtanen’s Elvira was more than adequate, but given how Pynkoski views the character, her Elvira was lacklustre. Nonetheless, Huhtanen’s voice was beautiful and secure. She impressed in “Chi mi dice mai?” and in the ensemble “Non ti fidar.”

In an attempt to not exceed three hours, this production was sadly cut quite heavily, unforgivable for such a familiar masterpiece. Though some purists accept playing only the score as written for its 1787 Prague premiere, almost all theatres and recordings also include the exquisite music added by Mozart for the 1788 Vienna production. This meant cutting Ottavio’s “Il mio tesoro,” Donna Anna’s “Non mi dir,” Donna Elvira’s “Mi tradì quell’alma ingrate” and the often discarded Leporello-Zerlina’s duet “Per queste tue manine.” Also, several bits of recitative were cut, as were the Commendatore’s lines in the cemetery scene. This led to a much reduced Act 2. I believe the denouement in the second act is as important as the build-up of drama in the first act. By substantially abridging the second act, the work’s balance is distorted. Both “Non mi dir” and “Mi tradì quell’alma ingrate” are essential in defining Anna’s and Elvira’s characters respectively. Given Meghan Lindsay’s first rate technique, it is an utter waste not to hear her sing Donna Anna’s most demanding aria. As for “Mi tradì quell’alma ingrata,” it is perhaps Mozart’s most moving aria ever, and without it, one does not get to see Elvira’s tenderness, for even when she is furious at Don Giovanni, she cannot bring herself to hate him.

Some scenes were masterfully staged, such as Don Giovanni’s Serenade “Deh vieni alla finestra”; the role swapping between Don Giovanni and Leporello; the catalogue aria, and the first act’s finale. Other scenes were not as convincing, such as the very stylized opening duel between Don Giovanni and the Commendatore, the cemetery scene and the dinner scene. The absence of the on-stage orchestras in the Act 2 dinner scene made this Don Giovanni seem to have fallen on hard times. This is especially lacking given the huge stage of the Ed Mirvish Theatre. The final scene when the Commendatore sweeps Don Giovanni to Hell was visually poor. Crimson bed sheets are no substitute for the fires of Hell. Moreover, having a jubilant Don Giovanni appear alive and well after the final sextet “Questo è il fin di chi fa mal” made no sense, since in this production he doesn’t escape his punishment.

Ossama el Naggar



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