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Musically ‘Giovanni’ was a success

DRAMATIC: Stripped down to a series of interactions, the story of Don Giovanni was presented as a study of the human tendency to obsess. Picture Jonx Pillemer

DRAMATIC: Stripped down to a series of interactions, the story of Don Giovanni was presented as a study of the human tendency to obsess. Picture Jonx Pillemer

Published Aug 26, 2013


DON GIOVANNI: Mozart. Presented by Cape Town Opera and UCT Opera School. Directed by Matthew Wild, with Thesele Kemane, Siyabulela Ntlale, Beverley du Plessis, Nomsa Mpofu, Esewu Nobela, Janel Speelman, Johannes Slabbert and Bongani Kubheka. UCT Symphony Orchestra and Opera School Chorus conducted by Kamal Khan. Design Michael Mitchell. Lighting Kobus Rossouw. At the Baxter Theatre. DEON IRISH reviews

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IN the programme note for this production, director Matthew Wild presents an apologia for his approach to this celebrated opera.

In analysing the narrative of the opera as being essentially a “series of interactions between strongly drawn characters”, he enjoins against what he terms “our 20th century obsessions with character development, a watertight narrative, tonal continuity, realistic lighting and representational scenery”.

This proved more than mere promise in what we experienced in two lengthy acts. Whatever “tonal continuity” might mean, Wild’s other stated elements are not necessarily congruous or incongruous with each other.

Which does not preclude there being sometimes considerable merit in a minimalist staging of an opera, not least because that may avoid some of the glaring absurdities of contemporary opera direction.

However, for a minimalist staging to justify the abandonment many usual elements, the bare essentials that are being portrayed (the pun is wholly intentional) must be faithful to the piece, more particularly since the glorious libretto of da Ponte and its Mozartean accompaniment remains unchanged.

If so presented, then the reduction to the essentials may indeed be a vehicle to a more focussed and insightful examination of the work.

Seen in this light, the production could hardly be considered faithful to the libretto, or its author’s intentions.

The title character came across as a rather silly creature having neither wit, elegance nor charm, whose obsession is purely with the act of sex and who is content to hang around with slatternly drunkards who appear ready to rut with anyone who promises them another drink.

Excessively Hogarthian; minimally da Ponte.

Where was da Ponte’s comedy – and therefore commentary – on Don Giovanni as the predator who finds the seductive chase irresistible, regardless of the spoiling of innocent lives or the blighting of established relationships?

That is his destructive immorality, not mere drunken debauchery with equally debauched participants, which was essentially what was portrayed.

The depiction of debauchery on opera stages is generally embarrassing to all concerned: to the singers, since they are mostly acutely self-conscious of what they are portraying; to the audience, since it all looks so faux and strained.

Because this element did not prove dramatically adequate to provide cohesion to the plot, there remained little else of directorial interest in a production that had no other leaven and remained disappointingly shallow.

Perhaps the best aspect of the staging was the cleverly constructed set, a row of doors, rather resembling the wing of a motel, which Wild used to extremely good effect in marshalling his forces through the many scene changes.

Musically, the evening was largely a success, although – inevitable in a student production – vocal security and acting ability were not of uniform excellence.

It is appropriate to commence with Kamal Khan, who faced the unenviable task of honing two collections of students (plus a few outsiders) into a credible cast and a reliable orchestra.

Well, he has done rather better than that on both counts.

The orchestra played with excellent facility and got better and better as the evening progressed – indeed, the overture was probably their least successful contribution.

For the rest, Khan conjured an accompaniment that was stylish, fluent, perfectly sympathetic to the voices, and above all enormously flexible, both in tempo and in dynamics.

Add to that his own assured harpsichord continuo (at times playing with left hand and beating with right) and he well deserved the lengthy applause he received from audience and cast.

Of the singers, Mpofu’s Donna Anna came away with the laurels on the night.

Her soprano has a warm richness, well moderated throughout the registers, and having considerable projection.

I also liked Slabbert’s Masetto, always a likeable character and so portrayed.

Leporello (Ntlale) was vocally effective, even though the character became rather bewildering at times; and Nobela made a good first of Don Ottavio, a rather slight character with a surprisingly large aria. Kemane sang the title role with a pleasing assurance.

But the role ultimately lacked depth and was hardly the strongly drawn character we had been promised.

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