The Durham Opera Ensemble’s production of Don Giovanni was variously intense, melodramatic, comic and sorrowful. Set in 2017, in the build-up to the #Me Too movement, this production aimed to remove the ‘rose-tinted glasses’ with which we see Don Giovanni through, revealing his true manipulative nature, and the power of female testimony in achieving justice. Whilst this certainly was an interesting and relevant angle to take, I think more could have been made of the links to the #MeToo movement. The projection of the MeToo marches across the back wall during the overture and the signs held by the chorus in the finale were powerful, but simply not enough.
The main event though was of course the music. I was blown away by the amazing talent of the lead performers. As the director notes, Don Giovanni is ‘by no mean an easy feat for any opera, let alone a student run one’, yet the cast met the highly challenging repertoire with technical brilliance and flare. Ben Osland as Don Giovanni was simply phenomenal. Not only did he act through every word, establishing his flirtatious and despicable character from the offset, his voice was beautifully rich and controlled, making the most of every last syllable. Reuben Esterhuizen as Leporello succeeded in portraying the hilarious yet complex role of Don Giovanni’s manservant, with acting flare and vocal precision.
Lily McNeil as Donna Elvira was cast impeccably; she succeeded in conveying both Elvira’s fierce and stubborn side as well as her masked vulnerability. Her voice had a beautiful clarity and she dealt with the challenging arias with impeccable ease. McNeil was perhaps my favourite performer of the night, who sung my favourite aria– ‘Mi tradì quell’alma ingrata’, translating to ‘cruel heart, thou has betray’d me’.
Mathilde Brun as Donna Anna and Lauren Bagge as Zerlina also displayed outstanding talent. Brun’s vibrato and ability to soar to the ridiculously high notes with such ease and control was truly spectacular. Bagge’s delicate tone was simply beautiful and perfectly suited her sweet and vulnerable character. As the only first-year lead character, Max Wedmore should be commended for his confident performance of Masetto. Although his acting was not always convincing, his strong vocal capability made up for his inexperience in acting. However, this inexperience did affect the chemistry between him and Bagge on stage, which appeared occasionally quite awkward and even cringe-worthy at times. Rowan Shields as Don Ottavio also displayed impressive technical ability, despite a few pitching uncertainties in the higher registers. He established a good partnership with Brun, although, once again, their relationship lacked romantic chemistry at times. Overall, this was an exceptionally talented lead cast, who together with the orchestra made this production a great success.
Another star of the night was the highly talented musical director, Monty Miller. He directed the orchestra expertly and with great professionalism, whilst simultaneously playing the harpsichord during the recitatives. The orchestra responded sensitively to his direction, displaying outstanding musical ability throughout. As I was seated front row, I was able to see the full orchestra clearly, which I really enjoyed, as they became just as much part of the production as the performers onstage.
However, there were some aspects of the production that didn’t quite work for me. Whilst I have no doubt the chorus was made up of very talented singers, overall I felt that most of their involvement was either poorly executed or simply unnecessary. I’m unsure how many people would have been part of the chorus originally, but in this production I almost thought that there were too many of them, as they often crowded the stage rather than complimenting the lead performers. Saying that, I do understand the value in giving as many students as possible the opportunity to gain experience on stage, especially as for a few of them, this was their first time on stage – and of course you have to start somewhere. But if you are going to have so many chorus members, use them in an effective way! The party scene and Giovanni’s descent into hell were among the few moments where the chorus played an important role. Unfortunately, most of the chorus choreography was unnecessary and cringe-worthy, which was not helped by a few embarrassed and awkward facial expressions made within the chorus.
The set and tech were simple and for most of the production very effective. Whilst the minimalist set, consisting of a couple chairs, a table and a black block was sometimes slightly boring to look at, it drew the focus onto the performers who certainly made up for this minimalism. Although there were some moments where I felt that the coloured lighting changes were unnecessary, as I didn’t always understand their purpose, the decision to limit the lighting to simple colour projections and a few spotlights worked well to effectively enhance the atmosphere on stage without becoming a distraction.
All things considered, this was a fantastic production. Of course, every show has their quirks but the sheer musical ability of the performers and the orchestra more than made up for them. For her directing debut for the stage, Ava Siene Cohen should be congratulated for taking on the challenging feat of Don Giovanni and executing it with such success. This was my first time watching a DOE production and it will definitely not be my last.
Featured Image: Chavi Chung, with permission.