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An image from Manitoba Opera's production of Don Giovanni.Colin Corneau

Manitoba Opera’s production of Mozart’s masterpiece, Don Giovanni, is a well-sung and visually delicious feast about a wealthy nobleman with a criminal streak who delights in abusing and seducing women of all ages and classes without an iota of repentance.

In some ways, it seems like a bold choice to make, especially considering how some of its content intersects with current events and 21st-century sensibilities.

The opening scene is full of mystery and portent, with moody lighting and mist slowly rolling across the stage. Starting off with a murder is never a bad thing, as all operas benefit from explosive action, and we immediately realize that Don Giovanni is not only a rapist and a cad, but a killer as well. Daniel Okulitch’s portrayal of the morally bankrupt nobleman is full of swagger and oily condescension. I loved how, from the quietest mezzo voce to a full lyric baritone, Okulitch was not afraid to almost croon some of his sweetest and nastiest words to victims.

There is much to debate in the actual content of this work, though, whose full title is paraphrased as The libertine punished, namely Don Giovanni. Actually, Don Giovanni is a rapist – can we just call him that? To contemporary audiences, some of the situations depicted onstage will seem out of touch, if not downright cruel. Parts of Lorenzo Da Ponte’s 1787 libretto had patrons around me openly gasping, especially when Zerlina (Andrea Lett) sings “beat me, beat me” to her jealous fiancé Masetto (played with appropriately peasant-like simplicity by Johnathon Kirby) after her embrace with the devilish Don; or when Masetto blames Zerlina for Don’s advances. Some elements of the libretto, such as the victim-blaming (including by men other than Don Giovanni), and the denigration of survivors as crazy were what bothered me the most. An article about trigger alerts and coping strategies was a welcome addition to the program notes, and the Manitoba Opera (MO) did numerous audience-engagement events concerning the piece’s content.

Libretto quibblings aside, I congratulate MO for affording opportunities to the fantastic young singers in this production, many of them Winnipeg-based. Lett’s deft handling of Mozart’s phrasing and her crystalline vocal clarity produced a heartbreaking Zerlina, especially when she was struggling while being kidnapped by the protagonist. Jessica Strong as Donna Anna was yet another Winnipeg standout. With some fine dramatic colourings in her voice, a technique that unfailingly serves her artistic choices, and impressive acting chops, she is obviously well on her way to an important career.

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Some elements of the libretto can be difficult to watch, such as the victim-blaming (including by men other than Don Giovanni), and the denigration of survivors as crazy.Colin Corneau

Monica Huisman’s Donna Elvira, a woman cast aside, warns others by haranguing Don Giovanni for his abhorrent behaviour. With compelling stage presence and a stunning flame-red dress underscoring her pointed attacks on the sleazy and vituperative Don, Huisman delighted the audience as the much-needed moral compass of the show.

The rest of the strong cast of almost all Canadians was equally impressive. Owen McCausland’s Don Ottavio was finely wrought both vocally and dramatically, his aria Il mio tesoro sung artfully and with clear coloratura. Stephen Hegedus’s Leporello was a lively lout with a heart, even if he parroted some of his boss Don G’s nefarious charisma. As the Commendatore, Kirk Eichelberger gave a spine-tingling performance, robust and suitably terrifying, coming back (spoiler alert!) from the dead to drag Don G down to the hellfires of eternal damnation. With some excellent work by the pyrotechnics crew, the audience got the message that hell is a hot place indeed.

Maestro Tyrone Paterson expressively conducted the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, whose playing was laudatory given a complex score and minimal rehearsal time. Their sound was plummy and well-balanced with the singers.

MO’s last season of Werther and Falstaff was a welcome and courageous gambit in finding that middle ground of challenging audiences with something new, while also giving them what they want. Mozart and Da Ponte’s compelling work, despite its problematic elements, is an exciting and great-sounding production that I highly recommend.

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