The legend of Don Giovanni has captivated the attention of writers, composers and philosophers for hundreds of years. It was such an immensely popular subject in 18th century Europe that several other operas were written and performed featuring the Don at the very time when Mozart composed his own in 1787. Some 50 years later, Søren Kierkegaard’s extensive essay influenced many regarding the meaning and interpretation of the Mozart opera and, among others, Molière, Goldoni, Dumas and G. B. Shaw chose the “punished libertine” (in Mozart’s title: “il dissoluto punito”) as the eponymous protagonist of their plays.

Opera Australia’s new production of Don Giovanni is the first of the three da Ponte operas planned for the next few years (Le nozze di Figaro and Così fan tutte forthcoming in 2015 and 2016), all directed by Sir David McVicar. The Scottish guest director took his cue from the brutally grim opening of the opera – a rape (attempted or otherwise) and a murder – yet remained true to Mozart’s own description of a “jocular” work (dramma giocoso) in the appropriate moments, for instance at the opening of Act II. Otherwise, dark feelings and dark colours prevail throughout the night; with the exception of the peasants, all the protagonists wear black. One of the strongest elements of the production is Robert Jones' set: smooth, soundlessly shifting walls in various shapes and sizes create different venues and a giant staircase is majestically lowered from the ceiling to the shadowy stage. We could be in a derelict castle, or even – judging by the piles of skulls and bones at the two sides of the stage – in the depth of catacombs of some medieval Spanish city where Don Giovanni seduced some of his 1003 local victims (according to Leporello’s catalogue aria), for the women are the victims in McVicar’s sombre production. They all suffer, yet for various reasons are unable to pull away from Giovanni’s poisonous presence. One of the most successful scenes in the performance is the Finale of Act I where seemingly everybody is chasing Giovanni, while he victoriously poses on top of a table, unaffected, surrounded by wriggling female bodies. At this stage, he cannot be reached or punished; it will take the Commendatore’s (Jud Arthur) supernatural power at the end of Act II to bring him down.

Mozart’s plebeian figures, whether in The Magic Flute, Figaro or Don Giovanni, are characteristically more fun to watch, more lively and resourceful than their noble counterparts. At the end of the opera we can be confident that the young peasant girl, Zerlina (a perfect role for Taryn Fiebig) will recover and live happily with her fiancée, Masetto (Richard Anderson). Alas, Donna Elvira (Nicole Car, one of the strongest performers in the cast) will go to a convent and Donna Anna (Elvira Fatykhova) will need a whole year to recover. Her apologetic aria “Non mi dir” (“Say no more”) to Don Ottavio was a highlight of the evening. John Longmuir's beautiful lines as Ottavio were somewhat marred by an overstated vibrato and occasional slips of intonation. Mozart wrote one his most emotional tenor arias for this role - “Il mio tesoro” (“I shall leave my beloved”) - for the Prague première, but replaced it later for the first performance in Vienna with “Dalla sua pace” (“My own happiness”). However poignant these arias are, Mozart clearly intended only one of them to be part of the opera. The inclusion of both of them, as happened in this production, disturbs the carefully crafted hierarchy within the protagonists as well as the proportions between the two acts.

The most powerful statement in McVicar’s unforgiving production is that Don Giovanni is far less the erotically charged scoundrel than I have seen in many other productions. Here, he is a soulless sexual predator. He lacks charm; his feelings towards the opposite sex are strangely amorphous rather than amorous. This challenging point of view seems to be at times at odds with da Ponte’s libretto and indeed, Mozart’s music. Teddy Tahu Rhodes (a seasoned veteran for this part) delivers the role with great professionalism. His sonorous, velvety voice didn’t seem to have quite the usual range of dynamics and expression; one can only hope that he is not overusing it. He forms a great (and splendidly interchangeable) pair with his servant, Leporello (Shane Lowrencev). Their acting was a constant source of entertainment and they were both excellent in ensembles. Leporello’s exposed bow on an empty stage during the last chords of the opera is a puzzling act of direction; it proposes significance to this character far beyond Mozart’s score.

Apart from the director, the other person in charge and ultimately responsible for the success of such an enormous enterprise – though in reviews not always acknowledged as such – is the conductor of the opera. Jonathan Darlington reigned over orchestra, choir and soloists with brisk but sympathetic tempi and a firm hand when acting diverted the singers momentarily from paying enough attention to him. His creative musicality kept the performance thriving with energy. Although the poor acoustics of the orchestra pit stifled many a beautiful sound produced, the balance between stage and orchestra was finely tuned throughout.