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Don Giovanni returns

Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts
10/05/2008 -  & 8, 11, 15, 18, 20, 23, 26, 28, 31 October
W.A. Mozart: Don Giovanni
Brett Polegato (Don Giovanni), Jessica Muirhead (Donna Anna), Julie Makerov (Donna Elvira), Virginia Hatfield (Zerlina), Robert Pomakov (Leporello), Gordon Gietz (Don Ottavio), Stanislav Shvets (Masetto), Richard Wiegold (Il Commendatore)
Canadian Opera Company Orchestra and Chorus, Sandra Horst (Chorus Master), William Lacey (Conductor)
Robin Guarino (Director), Jorge Jara (Set and Costume Designer), Robert Wierzel (Lighting Designer), Allison Grant (Choreographer)

B. Polegato (Don Giovanni)
(© Michael Cooper)

This production of Don Giovanni dates from 1992, when it was staged by Nikolaus Lehnhoff on the too-small stage of the Elgin Theatre. It was restaged by James Conway in 2000 on the too-large stage of the (also) too-large Hummingbird Centre. Now it is on the just-right-size stage of the Four Seasons Centre where director Robin Guarino has managed to make more of it than her predecessors ever did. However, there are still design lapses that even a resourceful director cannot overcome.

The set consists of architectural modules that can be easily moved to create the many required scenes; seen from the upper reaches of the theatre it has a stylish de Chirico-esque look. Lighting is murky at times, although we must keep in mind that much of the action takes place at night.

The costumes put the action in the present day in some strange place where men carry swords as well as handguns. The chorus is dressed in traditional Spanish finery. Donna Elvira’s costumes stand out for their colour and eccentricity which (I guess) is in keeping with her character.

The main strength of the production is the sense of ensemble: each member of the cast has just the right look for the role and every voice is steady. Brett Polegato is the epitome of the insouciant Don (although during the graveyard scene he is required abruptly to become fearful and guilt-ridden and he carries this off well also). As Leporello, Robert Pomakov strikes the right balance between beautiful singing and comedic expressiveness. This is the longest role in the work and his consistency does a lot to bind it all together. He won a prize at the 2000 Operalia (at age 19) and his voice is developing just as one would wish.

Gordon Gietz has just the attractive lyric tone for Don Ottavio. With his horn rim glasses and sweater vest he is the picture of well-meaning ineffectualness. I regret the fact that his Act I aria, Dalla sua pace, was cut. His voice fades during some of the ensembles but sounds superb in the brief dramatic trio with Anne and Elvira as they enter the costume ball.

Last season in Le Nozze di Figaro, Jessica Muirhead didn’t quite come into focus as the Countess and I felt the dowdy production was at fault. As Donna Anna, however, she commands attention in all her scenes, especially in her final scene which culminates with a heartfelt Non mi dir. Julie Makerov was last here in the 2006 Ring cycle when she performed both Freia and Gerhilde. A bit more of the valkyrie would be welcome in her depiction of Donna Elvira. She has a fine voice but one wishes for a stronger attack.

Virginia Hatfield, recently a member of the COC’s training ensemble, is a lovable Zerlina in every way. Stanislav Shvets is an ideal Masetto with voice to spare. Richard Wielgold is a strong Commendatore; it’s too bad that the staging of the opera’s climactic scene has him sing from the wings.

Conductor William Lacey, in his COC debut, makes a fine impression. One very positive aspect of his approach is a slower-than-usual tempo for Fin ch’ han dal vino which is so frequently undermined when rendered as a galloping showpiece. Brett Polegato is thus able to make it much more expressive than it usually is. His serenade to Elvira’s maid was also outstanding in this respect. Da capo sections of arias are discreetly but effectively embellished. The COC is looking for a new music director and Maestro Lacey has submitted a worthy example of what he can do.

Choreographer Alison Grant has created knockabout moves for the guests in the party scene, culminating in a goofy conga line.

The design for this production does not give us a life-size statue of the Commendatore, nor does its head nod, nor does it appear to drag the Don to Hades. For this scene, the director has Leporello and the others devise a scheme that scares Don Giovanni to death (much like in the 1955 French film, Diabolique). (It is also reminiscent of the apparitions conjured up to intimidate Baron Ochs in Act III of Der Rosenkavalier - but, of course, he does not die.) Elvira and Leporello pretend to be frightened, while Ottavio operates a fog machine and Masetto impersonates the Commendatore. (Perhaps we’re supposed to think that Giovanni is victimized by his inner demons?) These hijinks work as a giocoso addition to the dramma giocoso but aren't really an improvement over the appearance of the stone guest which, if staged properly, can magnify the impact of the scene’s powerful music.

All in all, however, thanks to the intelligent ensemble and well-paced conducting, this is a successful production that gives more than ample evidence as to why this work has commanded the stage for the past 221 years, with many more to come.

Michael Johnson



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