By April Howard
I would like to begin this review by remarking on the profound musical talent of the cast and orchestra. The musical dimension of this performance is faultless. All cast members display an incredible degree of vocal talent and flare, which pairs excellently with the orchestra’s seamless rendition of Mozart. Mathilde Brun’s (Donna Anna) beautiful and penetrating voice rings out in the air, shooting through the room and fizzling out like fireworks. All cast members have a great command of their voices and a supreme talent for opera. I would commend Monty Milner for his phenomenal musical direction. The only issue is that at some moments the cast needs greater projection because they are drowned out by the music.
Generally, the emotions and motivations of each character are well communicated by the actor. However, there is a general stiffness that thwarted the emotional climaxes and believability of the performance. This combination of singing and acting is what makes opera so challenging and while at times cast members exhibit this dual ability admirably, such as Ben Osland in Don Giovanni’s final reckoning or Reuben Esterhuizen during Leporello’s finest comic moments, there appears a general lack of confidence or rigidity which stifles the overall performance. This hugely improves over the course of the production, however. Lauren Bagge’s performance as Zerlina is consistently smooth and convincing throughout. Mathilde Brun, too, performs at times with great captivation. Lily McNeill also pairs an expressional face with her brilliant vocals to give a compelling performance as Donna Elvira.
However, I think the issue, apart from initial confidence, lies with a degree of emotional monotony. The emotional pitch of the performances is often flat, the rises and falls of the music and passion of the scene are lost by this. The performance generally ebbs and flows inconsistently. The passion of great moments of the story can be dampened. Rowan Shields, who generally gives a good performance as Don Ottavio, sings of how his heart bleeds for his love Donna Anna, but this begs the question: where is the blood? The bloodlessness of this rendering of Don Giovanni marked the performance generally for me. This is somewhat rectified by the play’s close, with the final emotional climax being struck at a perfect pitch while the literal blood of the chorus saturates the stage. However, this opera would have been greatly improved with this fervour being felt throughout. Nonetheless, the comic elements of the opera are strong, with the dynamic between Osland and Esterhuizen providing much physical comedy.
The chorus, too, ebb and flow in performance. Their presence as the undead pulling Don Giovanni to his doom is their finest moment, however, their initial appearance as witnesses to the discovery of the commander’s body (played incredibly by Leo Thomson) sees them appear self-conscious and unsure, mostly standing with folded arms and lacking reaction to the devastation of Brun’s Donna Anna.
I would also commend director Ava Siena Cohen and assistant director Savannah Bucciarelli whose staging, stripped-back and minimalist set and use of colourful lighting provide a compelling and effective backdrop to the opera. The fantastic rendering of the final scenes, beginning with Leo Thomson’s unsettling presence as the ominous and bewitching statue of the commander, owes much credit to their excellent direction. The direction also seeks to emphasise the modern parallels of Don Giovanni with its resonance for the Me Too movement. The business-style costuming of the characters works well to create this parallel, so too does the opening backdrop which displays a video of the Women’s March. However, this video would have perhaps been most effective as a montage of different impactful moments of this wave of feminism, rather than stagnating on the same scene. The use of the chorus holding signs with stereotyped and fragmented feminist phrases such as ‘My Body, My Choice’ and ‘The Future is Female’ makes the references to Me Too seem tacked-on. It almost serves to undermine and stereotype the feminist movement to which it effectively dedicates the production by using the most cliché and irrelevant of signs, perhaps another video backdrop would better serve this purpose.
I would recommend this production overall. The Durham Opera Ensemble offer the people of Durham a night of supreme musical talent and of an interesting, engaging performance.
Image Credit: Durham Opera Ensemble