History’s Greatest Sleazeball Comes to Town: Don Giovanni at the Vancouver Opera

Image sourced from Vancouver Opera

Image sourced from Vancouver Opera

The timeless opera about history’s most famous seducer and slimeball has come to Vancouver.

Don Giovanni, the 1787 opera with music by none other than Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, is showing at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre through March 9.  Based on the opening night performance on Saturday, the production should be a crowd-pleaser, for opera aficionados and newbies alike.

Don Giovanni is classified as opera buffa, which must have been 18th-century speak for pulp fiction.  It consists of more than three hours of non-stop swordfights, seductions and ribald – even downright raunchy – scenes.

I’m not sure if it was the saucy subject matter or an aggressive marketing campaign by the Vancouver Opera itself, but the Queen Elizabeth Theatre was packed for the premiere: fuller – and much younger – than I’ve ever seen it for an opera performance.

The protagonist and anti-hero of the production is, of course, Don Giovanni.  Giovanni is the Italian incarnation of the infamous Spanish lover Don Juan, and he’s a world-class smooth talker and scoundrel.  The nobleman has spent his life “conquering” thousands of women. In fact, he actually keeps a detailed book on it all: One of the opera’s most entertaining scenes consists of a scorned lover poring over the Don’s book of conquests.

But things are starting to catch up with Don Giovanni. He kills the father of a noblewoman whom he was attempting to “ravish” and finds himself a hunted man.  Meanwhile, a jilted lover has started a fatal-attraction-type obsession of her own. Dona Elvira hounds Don Giovanni relentlessly – and comically – pursuing him through the city and into his mansion.

Now, in terms of the music, the opera features several well known pieces, including the aforementioned “catalogue” aria listing Giovanni’s past loves and Dalla sua pace, where noble Ottavio promises to avenge the murder of his wife’s father.  Judging from the applause at the premiere, the vocal performances seemed especially strong, particularly those of the two female leads, jilted lover Donna Elvira (played alternately by Krisztina Szabo and Leslie Ann Bradley) and grieving daughter Donna Anna (played alternately Erin Wall and Katherine Whyte).

In the meantime, we get plenty of cases of mistaken identity and characters in disguise.  In fact, the absurd plot is a bit too convoluted to recount here. But this is actually a strongpoint of the opera and – in all likelihood – one of the things that keeps it fresh to contemporary audiences more than 200 years after it premiered.  It’s still pretty funny and it doesn’t take itself seriously.

Don Giovanni (played alternately by Daniel Okulitch and Brett Polegato) is a timeless scumbag and inveterate liar. But there’s something about his lust for life that’s catchy. It’s guilty fun watching him pursue one woman after the next – even a bride on her wedding day – with total disregard for propriety or emotion.  He steals every scene he’s in and when he’s not there the action lags and the opera gets a bit too serious.

In the end, of course, Don Giovanni gets what’s coming to him. I won’t spoil the delicious finish but I will say it’s complemented by some pretty nifty, totally over-the-top special effects, projected onto curtains behind the stage. They’re the handiwork of Bob Bonniol, the design genius behind the Blue Man Group’s thrilling video installations.

Short story: Don Giovanni is one of the cornerstones of the opera repertoire.  It’s also one of the most accessible operas out there.  Though it comes in at more than three hours, there’s enough action and comedy to keep even casual fans or opera novices (and I count myself firmly in that category) entertained, at least for most of it. If you have even a passing interest in one of the pillars of the Western cultural canon, it might be worth catching during its brief run at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre, through March 9.

Did you see Vancouver Opera’s Don Giovanni? What did you think of it? Let us know below.

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