Sunday, 26 August 2012

Co-Opera Co - Don Giovanni

Co-Opera Co Don Giovanni
A perfectionist might argue that there is a case for some operas only being cast from singers who are fully formed artists with a goodly array of technique and life experiences. But we live in the real world, Mozart's Don Giovanni is popular with audiences and forms a staple for many a young artists and small opera companies. And, after all, how to learn but by doing? So, I caught up with the second of Co-Opera Co's performances of Mozart's Don Giovanni at the John McIntosh Theatre at the London Oratory School on Friday 24 August, eagerly awaiting how the young singers would deal with one of the masterpieces of western music.


William Relton's production (designed by Katie Bellman) moved the time period to the present day. Whilst such transpositions can make it easier for the singers to get into the roles, they can often represent laziness or a concern to work through the director's own ideés fixes rather than present the work in the best possible way. But Relton had taken a great deal of care, not only to shape the production to suit his young and enthusiastic cast, but also to ensure that the plot and the raison d'être of the opera were clear to the audience.

The engine of the plot in Don Giovanni isn't so much sex, as power and class. Whatever the setting, the opera's interactions only work if the characters are in the correct relationships of power. Each character's situation in the hierarchy of class, relationship and power was beautifully clear and convincing; perhaps with a slight element of caricature, but only a little.

Carl Davies's setting was a flexible series of white screens and display cases in which sub-Damien Hirst art objects were displayed. Thus conveying the idea of art gallery or expensive apartment. That two of the display cases held mannequins in a manner analogous to Hirst's shark in formaldehyde, only served to point the moral of the story. The only draw back was the time taken to change scenes, so that the dramatic flow of the piece was interrupted.

Don Giovanni (David Milner-Pearce) was a moneyed toff, in a velvet jacket, jeans and t-shirt with a large scarf; oozing easy charm and money, confident both in his position in the world and in his role as sexual predator. Leporello (Yair Polishook) was a street smart bloke, probably doing a bit of dealing on the side. It helped that Polishook is quite slight in contrast to his master's imposing figure.

Donna Anna (Lisa Wilson) and Don Ottavio (David Menezes) were of course from the same moneyed class as Don Giovanni. Donna Elvira (Susanna Fairbairn) was a slightly dowdy upper-middle class woman, dressed up for coming into town.

Zerlina (Robyn Allegra Parton) and Masetto (Jerome Knox) and their friends were clearly from The Only Way is Essex, young people dressed up in high heels and flesh revealing short skitrs, hip hugging jeans; the look was just right. And these were young people, younger Don Giovanni and of a different class, which helped with the logic of the way they acquiesce in being swept away to Don Giovanni's house in act one.

For the ball scene, the masquers (Donna Anna, Don Ottavio and Donna Elvira) were disguised in gangsta rap gear. This, combined with the choreography, managed to be both hilarious and helped differentiate between the different groups.

Co-Opera Co is a training opera and not every performance was quite fully formed, but many were well on the way and overall the level of commitment and performance craft was extremely high.

Milner-Pearce's Don Giovanni was fully of suave charm and sex appeal. His account of the champagne aria (with cocaine rather than champagne) and the serenade were both nicely shaped. But Don Giovanni is a role where the main meat is in the interaction with others. Here Milner-Pearce was on good form and his Giovanni was an enthralling and almost total creation. The way he watched the Commendatore (Matthew Tomko) die was a nice touch which set the scene for the rest of the opera. The one thing Milner-Pearce seemed to lack was a dangerous edge. He has a fine, warm baritone voice which he used intelligently and his Don Giovanni was impressive, I hope he can build on the performance in time.

Yair Polishook as Leporello was in total command of the stage whenever he appeared. He had a wry and amusing manner, with a nice line in depreciation combined with a fabulous dark baritone voice. He was also very funny, but with a vein of melancholy which made us feel sorry for him. The list in the catalogue aria was, of course, a phone app and none the worse for that, especially with Polishook's sparkling delivery. He was, perhaps, the most complete performer on stage and showed himself adept at communicating with (and manipulating) an audience.

The version used was the Prague one, so that Lisa Wilson's Donna Anna did not get to sing Mi Tradi which was a shame as I think her voice (which approaches jugend-dramatisch) would have suited it well. As it was, she nailed the coloratura in her final aria very well. She showed an admirable ability to fine her voice down to suit the dramatic moment and she is an expressive singer. Only some hints of awkward joins in registers suggested that her voice might still be developing dramatically. Donna Anna is, after all, a role typically taken by dramatic sopranos. Wilson was brilliant in Donna Anna's moments of temperament, but also conveyed an inner fragility and her tenderness for Don Ottavio.

David Menezes also lost out as Don Ottavio only has one aria in this version, but this Menezes sang finely. He had started out slightly tentatively and suggested Don Ottavio's retiring temperament nicely, but in his aria, Il mio tesoro, he rose to the dramatic and technical challenges with aplomb.

Donna Elvira was portrayed as slightly dowdy and out of town. Susanna Fairbairn brought out the character's fragile precariousness. Her voice had a tremulous quality which was very particular. Her use of vibrato rather made her passage-work sound smudgier than I suspect it really was.

Zerlina was a nicely observed performance from Parton, all Essex girl on the surface but with a beautifully tender Bati, bati and a lovely duet with Milner-Pearce in La ci da rem. I certainly look forward to hearing her in other roles. She and Knox had a rather believable relationship, both touching and amusing. Perhaps Knox worked a little too hard at times at Masetto's bristling angry manner, but was a joy to watch and listen to.

Matthew Tomko was an impressive Commendatore, in a wheelchair at the opening. His statue was in one of the display cabinets and at the end, when the Commendatore reappears at Don Giovanni's house, the cabinet came with him. It was here that he pulled Don Giovanni, entombed forever as one of his own art objects.

More than any individual performance, what impressed was the way the cast worked together as an ensemble creating a drama that was at once funny, touching and dramatically moving. They had a wonderful fizzy energy which took off from conductor Tim Murray's lively account of the overture and continued all evening.

The chorus clearly had a great time as Masetto and Zerlina's friends, all on the town for a good night out. And they sang well too.

Conductor, Tim Murray was firmly in charge from the beginning, getting a crisp account of the music and ensuring that the pace did not drag, without ever making us feel rushed.

Director William Relton and his team really created an absorbing (and very funny) evening and drew out a fine set of performances from the cast.

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