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A scene from a dress rehearsal for Opera Atelier's "Don Giovanni" (Bruce Zinger)
A scene from a dress rehearsal for Opera Atelier's "Don Giovanni" (Bruce Zinger)

Music: Opera review

Don Giovanni as speedy comedy? Add to ...

Don Giovanni

  • Opera Atelier
  • At the Elgin Theatre in Toronto on Saturday

Opera Atelier’s co-artistic director Marshall Pynkoski stepped on stage just before the curtain rose on Saturday night. The opera was Don Giovanni – and Pynkoski, who served as stage director for the new production, had a few words to say.

First, he wanted everyone to know that Mozart’s take on the Don Juan legend was intended as a comedy. And he also wanted us to know that his production was all about two things: speed and youth.

The “youth” part wasn’t surprising: Opera Atelier generally casts with an eye for young and attractive singers.

But the “speed” part came as a bit of a shock. Apparently the rationale for presenting the opera in as little time as possible was that, back in 1787, Mozart conducted a performance that was just two-and-a-half hours long. Be that as it may, Pynkoski’s and conductor Stefano Montanari’s efforts turned the opera into an Olympic sport.

Some recitatives were sung so quickly that perhaps “sung” is not the right word to use. Several arias that are often allowed to breathe a little – such as La ci darem la mano and Batti, batti, o bel Masetto – were pressed forward. Even complex ensemble scenes were taken at breakneck speed.

This was risky – and fortunately there were no train wrecks. On the contrary, the performance on stage was tight and snappy. And even at accelerated tempi, the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra (Opera Atelier’s pit band) managed to bring out rich details in the score.

So it was all quite brilliant, in a way. But to what end? Playing the “authenticity” card here seems a bit disingenuous, as Opera Atelier increasingly plays fast and loose with its initial ideals of period performance.

However, one thing is certain: This approach to Don Giovanni couldn’t have been realized without a fine cast, willing to push boundaries and stretch limits.

Baritone Phillip Addis proved himself vocally equal to the title role. However, dramatically speaking, his Don Giovanni was not a powerful and malevolent force dominating the stage (as Giovanni often is), but a weak man who just can’t help himself. This approach tended to remove the Don from a central position in the plot, rendering him just another character in the opera.

Vasil Garvanliev portrayed Leporello with a plumy and jolly baritone voice, and an enthusiasm for stage antics. By contrast, Lawrence Wiliford placed his clear tenor, tinged with a pleasant vibrato, at the service of an introspective Don Ottavio. Baritone Curtis Sullivan was convincing as a dangerous but bumbling Masetto. Yet when he appeared near the end of the opera as the Commendatore, his efforts to achieve an eerily stentorian vocal effect sounded forced.

No less impressive were the women in the cast. Soprano Meghan Lindsay sang the role of Donna Anna, with a bright and dramatically edgy voice. And soprano Carla Huhtanen was a sweetly lyrical Zerlina.

But the scene-stealer was Peggy Kriha Dye (as Donna Elvira), whose over-the-top portrayal of the opera’s crazy lady did much to support the idea of Don Giovanni as a comedy. As well, her supple soprano voice, strong in all registers, was a joy to listen to.

The Atelier Ballet, led by Jeannette Lajeunesse Zingg, added charm to the production with their peasant dances. And in the penultimate scene, they furiously fanned the flames that consumed poor Don Giovanni.

In the end, the effectiveness of Pynkoski’s attempts to speed his audience back to 1787 remain questionable. Perhaps the interpretive traditions attached to Don Giovanni – the darker, weightier ideas that developed in the 19th and 20th centuries – are a bell that can’t be unrung.

Don Giovanni continues through Nov. 5.

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