The ensemble from heaven sends Don Giovanni to hellReview
In the first live production that Pacific Opera Victoria has staged since the COVID outbreak, their oft-thwarted Don Giovanni opens this (mid) season of 2022. While the production was originally cast with baritone Lucia Lucas in the title role, she was replaced at the last minute. No statement from the company has been released as of the date of printing.
Nevertheless, the title role was filled by Canadian bass-baritone Daniel Okulitch, and he filled it absolutely masterfully. His personification of the womanizing, devil-may-care Don was confident and filled with swagger - as if he couldn’t imagine a world in which he wouldn’t get whatever he wanted. His seduction of the myriad women in the cast was bold and fearless, as was his facing his ultimate fate. In the curtain call, Okulitch was met with a chorus of cheerful boos for the philandering cad, and he happily gestured for more.
Donna Anna and Don Ottavio were played by the brilliant soprano Aviva Fortunata and tenor Owen McCausland respectively. This duo was so well-matched; an absolute powerhouse of a couple with Fortunata’s soaring coloratura, and McCausland’s bright, full tenor. Even in the larger ensembles, their voices shone.
The luckless Donna Elvira was played by soprano Tracy Cantin. Rather than portraying Elvira as a desperate dupe, Cantin brought the gravitas of a traumatized survivor to the difficult role. With beautiful clarion high notes, her precise and effortless handling of “Mi tradì quell’alma ingrata” brought cheers from the audience.
The hapless couple of Zerlina and Masetto were portrayed by soprano Cécile Muhire and bass-baritone Peter Monaghan. The duo, usually characterized as dupes who fall easily for Don Giovanni’s wiles, were instead depicted as nuanced, believable - albeit flawed - characters. Monaghan was a comic genius from start to finish with a lush, full voice that soared through the hall. Muhire was lovable and seductive, urging Masetto to trust her with a light, agile soprano.
The standout of the evening was Justin Welsh as Leporello. With comedic timing second to none, Welsh’s Leporello was long-suffering, but wily, and every scene he was in was hilarious with so much physical comedy it brought the house down.
The only drawbacks in this production were directorial - the statue of the murdered Commendatore walked on to his plinth several scenes before his appearance to Giovanni, then walked off again. The choice was unusual; I felt it diminished the effectiveness and surprise of his ghostly appearance to Don Giovanni. In the finale, when the Don is being sentenced to damnation, it began to rain glitter from the ceiling, and then Giovanni was dragged off the edge of the set by…. waiters. The same ones who had just served him the banquet. Rather than feeling like the eternal damnation of a terrible man, I felt like he was getting thrown out of a party. Likewise, during the many arias in front of the scrim while scene changes were happening, the cast was given little direction or action, which made those scenes drag longer than necessary for such a skillful ensemble.
The orchestra conducted by Timothy Vernon was subtle and beautiful, underscoring the wide variety of voices with tact and delicacy. The lighting design by Bonnie Beecher was particularly effective, alternating mood lighting and spotlights, back lighting and others highlighting the drama on the stage perfectly.
All in all, this was a wonderful modernization of an opera that could so easily have fallen into a laughable sexist trope. It was handled with delicacy and nuance, and breathed life into a wonderful score with the sensitivity and understanding of a modern age.