Opera Australia presents something old and something quite radically new in Melbourne for its Summer season. Don Giovanni offers a captivating performance from Teddy Tahu Rhodes as Mozart’s dangerously charming lothario, while Bruce Beresford directs John Steinbeck’s all-American classic Of Mice And Men as a sweeping and deeply affecting operatic experience.
Sharing the State Theatre with the Verdi favourite La Traviata — read Jason Whittaker’s Melbourne review — the unlikely pair combine as a rich example of what opera can be.
Curtain Call reviewed both shows at the Sydney Opera House. Lloyd Bradford Syke called director Goran Jarvefelt’s Don Giovanni the “finest I’ve seen”:
For my money, if any opera epitomises dramma giocoso, it’s Don Giovanni. Even if its composer classed it as opera buffa, but confounded us by recording the words ‘dramma giocoso’ in the title. Setting aside debates about musically-correct correct nomenclature, in this brand-spanking production from Opera Australia, director Goran Jarvefelt seems to have chanelled the good-humoured spirit of the decomposing composer (well, the spirit according to Peter Shaffer, anyway). I fancy Wolfy would’ve approved.
As so many have acknowledged, from the first few bars, this is the perfect opera. Flaubert reckoned only Hamlet and the sea were, or are, as fine, and nothing was, or is, finer. Mozart has the unparallelled knack of throttling-up the dramatics from the get-go so, by the time the overture is winding down we’re already waiting with Leporello, keeping guard, anticipating, worrying the Don will be caught with his pants down. Conal Coad picks up on the comic promise of the situation immediately and instinctively; we’re primed for laughing and nary a word has been sung. There he is, an operatic clown, the stage equivalent of Oliver Hardy, or some such. And when he opens his mouth, out pours this thundering bass, very much in keeping with the drama written into the score. His Leporello is lovable, rotund teddy bear, horribly exploited by his master, but no less worthy of affection for his pathetic loyalty. A kind of Sergeant Schultz.
Soon after Leporello’s warning of an approach, the lithe, elongated Teddy Tahu Rhodes leaps from the balcony of Donna Anna’s bedroom, looking like he’s wearing Zorro’s pjs, right down to black leather hotpants. Donna Anna’s father, the Commendatore, is in hot pursuit, veritably crying, “who was that masked man?!” Regrettably, Don G resolves to kill him, despite his perfunctory protestations that “I don’t fight old men”. I say regrettably, but, for Don G, it’s not just a survival tactic, it’s half the fun. Yes, he’s a deplorable human being, but so consummately charming and disarming, you can’t help but like him. And besides, who can resist Rhodes’ unfalteringly rich, robust baritone? One can’t imagine any singer better-suited to the role. Or actor, for he towers in that respect, too. In short, he lives up to the meaning of his middle name, a Maori one which means ‘to set on fire’. Moreover, Coad and Rhodes are such an inspired double-act, as master and servant, it’s hard for anyone else to command attention.
Of Mice And Men “succeeds, admirably, on all levels: design; drama; musicality; meaning”:
The worrying aspect is that Carlisle Floyd’s opera is based on John Steinbeck’s immortal, iconic novella and, thus, notwithstanding, for example, a highly-successful theatrical adaptation, warning bells ring loudly. Can any composer and, more to the point, librettist (in this case, one and the same) hope to reach Steinbeck’s standard? What will be lost in translation? It’s a debate that could rage, in detail, for a long time, amongst eggheads and wankers. But one thing’s certain in my mind: if nothing else, Floyd has captured Steinbeck’s intent, the true spirits of his key characters and the confounding moral complexities that pervade even the simplest of human existences.
Steinbeck’s triumph, for mine, is his ability to tell a good story in the very best conventional sense, while musing, potently, on existential dilemmas. A gift not lost on Floyd and one he’s brought to the stage of the Sydney Opera House’s Opera Theatre, with a little bit of help from Bruce and company.
The setting is not a gilt drawing-room somewhere in middle Europe, but Salinas, California. It’s all barns and tumbleweed; card games and liquor. Men are men, and there are many of them, beavering away on Curley’s ranch. Only one busty, lusty lass is on-site, testing the involuntary celibacy of the bunkhouse males, day in, day out, with her flirtatious ways. She’s Curley’s wife, untouchable and frustrated by his lack of attention and all-round impotence. Jacqueline Mabardi eats up this role, throwing her voice out there every bit as brazenly as her role demands. She has a charismatic presence and you can’t take your eyes or ears off her. Brad Daley also wears the character of Curley very well.
The details: Don Giovanni has six more performances until December 17. Of Mice And Men has one more performance on December 10. Both shows are at the State Theatre, Arts Centre — tickets on the OA website.