Opera Review – Opera Atelier/Don Giovanni by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Photo by Bruce Zinger

Opera Atelier has its own special zeitgeist. The company is firmly anchored in baroque music and period aesthetic. While we attend other opera companies to see what fresh ideas an auteur stage director brings to a work, with OA we expect a repetition of style and form in terms of music, dance and stagecraft. But lest anyone think this is same old, same old, we come to an OA performance to experience the profound beauty of the baroque performing arts, specifically opera-ballet. You’ll never see a production featuring obscure symbolism or opera in raincoats with this company.

The remount of Mozart’s Don Giovanni is a case in point. Director Marshall Pynkoski has deliberately gone back to the libretto’s roots in commedia dell’arte, taking as his throughline, Leporello’s hilarious, zinger one-liners that permeate Lorenzo Da Ponte’s text. Humour abounds, but so do emotion and passion. Singers just don’t sing in an OA production. They act, and not just during the recits, but throughout the arias as well. OA productions could be classified as plays with music, as much as anything else. And then there is the dance, which choreographer Jeannette Lajeunesse Zingg includes wherever she can, such as the celebration of Zerlina and Masetto’s wedding, and the dance sequences during the Don’s banquet at his palace, all of course crafted out of period movement and gesture. In Don Giovanni, dancers also shift scenery – stylishly, of course – and perform as extras where needed. One of OA’s visual delights is the dance component, which is a unique hallmark of this company.

Many years of experience have taught OA audiences that Pynkoski is meticulous in his stage direction. Nothing is left to chance, and I suspect there isn’t so much as a finger that he hasn’t positioned. That being said, in a long opera like Don Giovanni, the very busyness works to the production’s advantage. There is always something happening on stage to capture the eye. I am sure there is no other Don Giovanni mounted anywhere in the world that has the detailed stage business found in OA’s version of the opera. When Martha Mann’s exquisite costumes, Gerard Gauci’s clever trompe d’oeil set, and Michelle Ramsay’s atmospheric lighting are added to the mix, what OA serves up is a majestic baroque feast for the eyes. Everything about Don Giovanni is visually beautiful.

Photo by Bruce Zinger

But what about the feast for the ears? Being purists, OA has opted to perform, with one significant change which will be discussed later, the original 1787 Prague version of Don Giovanni which certainly beefs up the part of Masetto, while adding in a couple of attractive ensemble numbers. Conductor David Fallis always brings out the intentions of the composer, and with the revered Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra at hand, the theatre is filled with glorious music. Fallis is as detailed in his conducting as Pynkoski is in stage direction, and the maestro has eked out all the drama and humour that he can from the score. Musically, it is a very nuanced performance. Fallis does, however, conduct Don Giovanni’s Champagne Aria (“Fin ch’han dal vino”) at such a blistering pace, that the poor singer had trouble breathing.

The chorus is interesting. Instead of the Tafelmusik Chamber Choir, which is custom, this production features the University of Toronto Schola Cantorum under the leadership of famed countertenor Daniel Taylor, a group that specializes in baroque and early music. There are twelve singers listed and they did perform beautifully in their small offerings, but I do wonder at the change. Only a small group of singers needed? Less expensive?

The most impressive singer of the night, and a first among equals in a roster of strong performances, was Carla Huhtanen (Donna Elvira). Her singing was absolutely surprising, because her voice has moved from an attractive light lyric soprano to something quite profound. Somewhere along the line, her output has deepened and darkened into a commanding tone with a robust lower register and tremendous dramatic capability. From the moment she first appeared on stage, her singing literally jumped off the stage in a full frontal attack. One can only imagine where she can go from here in terms of repertoire. As for the other women in the cast, soprano Meghan Lindsay (Donna Anna) displayed her strong, clear, bright sound that always attracts the ear, and radiates passion and drama. A complete opposite to Huhtanen and Lindsay is Mireille Asselin (Zerlina), whose pert, feathery light soprano is perfect for soubrette roles. She always exudes warmth and charm

Photo by Bruce Zinger

Of the men in this cast, four are bass-baritones and one is a tenor. That is a lot of bass-baritones, but all are quite distinct. Douglas Williams (Don Giovanni) has a romantic, throaty sound coated in honey, yet quite manly in tone, which is a great combination for a singer – warmth and strength. (Incidentally, through my opera glasses I could see Williams has bedroom eyes and a seductive smile. What could be better for the Don?) Stephen Hegedus (Leporello) possesses a very attractive light voice that is clear, clean and almost sweet in tone. He can act up a storm and is physically adept at moving his body as needed. Hegedus also has a very appealing stage presence. Latterly I have found the voice of Olivier Laquerre (Masetto) to be strained and raspy, but in Don Giovanni, he gives a very strong performance. It could be that the role of Masetto requires the singer to always be in a snit, so barking, shouting and complaining works well with gruff and rough. As well, Laquerre did not show any sign of strain as Masetto. It falls to Gustav Andreassen (Commendatore) to be the big, hearty bass-baritone with those commanding, authoritative, rolling notes that seem to come from his toes.

Which brings us to tenor Colin Ainsworth (Don Ottavio). Now I have always associated Ainsworth with the haute-contre roles in French baroque opera, which require a ridiculously high tessitura, so it was with great surprise to find him performing the title role in Idomeneo for OA last April. That role usually goes to a big, powerful Verdi/Puccini tenor. As well, the range is lower, with jumps up to the money notes from the middle register. Ainsworth did manage to pull it off, but there were times of unease, particularly at the low end. Despite the not quite rightness of it, a careful listen ascertained that interesting vocal changes were afoot. And here he is now doing Don Ottavio, with a voice that seems to be more comfortable in the lower register. His did blend in beautifully with the others in the ensembles, so he does belong there.

The change from the original Prague version, mentioned above, was dropping the aria “Il mio tesoro”. Ainsworth performed “Dalla sua pace” which was tailored for the capabilities of the Vienna Don Ottavio, and is considered an easier sing, I suppose, over  “Il mio tesoro” and its tortuous coloratura. What I’m asking is, what is there about “Il mio tesoro” that dictated the change? It does beg the question. Ainsworth did, however, do a lovely job with “Dalla sua pace”, performing in dreamy sotto voce fashion, but cranking up for his ending declaration. Unlike the purity and clarity of most Mozart tenors, Ainsworth’s voice has interesting colour and shading. I see in the program that the singer is doing Lensky (Eugene Onegin) in Seattle, which is a big jump and a big sing away from haute-contre. Clearly a career in transition.

And a final note, albeit a trivial one. There is probably not a better-looking cast who has ever performed Don Giovanni. The men are all handsome and the women are fetching, and that goes for the dancers as well. So to OA’s bountiful gifts, one can now add eye-candy.

Photo by Bruce Zinger

Opera Atelier, Don Giovanni by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, libretto by Lorenzo Da Ponte, Ed Mirvish Theatre, Oct, 31 to Nov. 9, 2019.