Opera Australia enjoys great success with Sir David McVicar’s tasteful Mozart productions, which combine visual and musical pleasure while shining an unapologetic searchlight on the human condition. This Don Giovanni (revived by Warwick Doddrell) is set in the dying days of the Enlightenment, in a society whose obsession with class is matched only by their fixation on death. It’s a real treat of an opera – sumptuous, decaying, full of tension.

Andrei Kymach (Don Giovanni)
© Keith Saunders

Darkness dominates from the beginning, with Mozart’s famous “gates of hell” overture and a silky black curtain lifting on Don Giovanni committing a rape, centre-stage on Robert Jones’ cavernous set. This set is one of the strongest elements of the production – a deep, gothic underworld of shadowy porticos, a moving staircase and distant graveyards. In a side alcove, skulls and bones lay piled in heaps, representing the morbid fascinations that were beginning to haunt the poets of the era. There is almost no natural sunlight (David Finn’s masterly lighting design, in stark contrast to his gold-touched Marriage of Figaro), so that even the peasants’ pastel clothing (Jones’ costumes) takes on a sickly green tinge. The set is designed with clever depth perspective and multiple layers of height, used strikingly with Andrew George’s choreography. Singers ascend and descend the moving staircase or are placed like imposing statues at various levels, creating visual interest more dramatic than any dancing chorus line.

This production has been very well cast with fresh up-and-coming talent. In his Australian debut, Ukrainian baritone Andrei Kymach boasted a charismatic performance as the Don. Winner of the prestigious BBC Cardiff Singer of the World competition in 2019, Kymach has a dark, velvety voice that plays dextrously with Mozart’s music. His Champagne Aria sounded almost effortless, and his “Deh! vieni alla finestra” was rich with beautiful phrasing and gorgeous overtones. Kymach was also a commanding stage presence. His Don was young and dynamic, more arrogant and entitled than manipulative, with layers of debonair cockiness covering the mysterious inner-workings of the character.

Yuri Kissin (Leporello) and Andrei Kymach (Don Giovanni)
© Keith Saunders

Equally impressive was French-Israeli bass-baritone Yuri Kissin, also making his Australian debut. His Leporello was finely sung, clearly enunciated, and winningly mischievous, creating a wonderful buzz in all his scenes. His Catalogue Aria brimmed with a comic energy that drew so many laughs I wondered if the audience had time to appreciate his musical elegance. This was all the more admirable as Leporello can be a tricky role to pitch correctly. Without enough comedy, the character becomes even more detestable than the Don; but too much makes the role two-dimensional. Kissin achieved a good balance, bringing down the house with his jokes whilst showing how the character uses the Don’s schemes to advance his own agenda. Intriguingly, McVicar and Doddrell give Leporello, and not the Don, the final word in more than one act, with Kissin standing centre stage, breaking the fourth wall, and throwing the audience a sassy look just as the lights go black. At any rate, he and Kymach proved an electric combination. Their recitative banter crackled with theatrical energy, and the two had a dynamic rapport, effortless comic timing and richly-wrought vocals. It's worth seeing this production just to see the pair in action.

Juan De Dios Mateos (Don Ottavio), Sophie Salvesani (Donna Anna) and Bronwyn Douglass (Donna Elvira)
© Keith Saunders

Sophie Salvesani was also a standout as Donna Anna, with a beautiful soprano notable for its silvery resonance and a clarity that filled the house, even at times when other singers sounded muffled against the orchestra. Juan de Dios Mateos sang the role of her fiancé Don Ottavio, showing the character’s earnest top-layer chivalry and deeper emotional impotence in a thoughtful character arc. Bronwyn Douglass gave her all to the role of Donna Elvira, throwing herself into the character’s emotional rollercoaster. Cathy-Di Zhang was suitably comic as Zerlina, and Andrew Williams a sulky, contradictory foil in an interestingly complex take on the character of Masetto.

David Parkin was fantastic as the Commendatore. Even though the character is onstage rarely, singing only at the opera’s very beginning and very end, it is a pivotal role. The Commendatore sets the dark tension from the outset with his death, and carries the climactic finale as the Don is dragged into hell. Parkin did not disappoint, with a furious, commanding bass and an implacable, looming presence. Interestingly, he was the winner of the opera show Operatunity Oz – it’s amazing to think that, without reality TV, we might have all missed out on his Mozartian skill.

David Parkin (The Commendatore) and Andrei Kymach (Don Giovanni)
© Keith Saunders

Guillaume Tourniaire provided solid leadership to the Opera Australia Orchestra, setting a brisk, fresh pace. I would have liked the singers to have been more attuned to Tourniaire’s sprightly timing, especially since Mozart’s music is usually better off without soloist over-indulgence in rubato. Hopefully, though, this will be finessed in future performances. A final, special shoutout must go to Siro Battaglin, who plays a fine continuo on fortepiano.