Don giovanni
Image Credit: Charlie Rand

Mozart’s opera: a Don Giovanni review

Marking a return to the Oxford operatic scene following their production of Le Nozze Di Figaro last year, the Oxford Student Opera Society was welcomed with open arms by audiences for their production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni.

To cut a long story short, the three-hour opera is centred around the character of Don Giovanni, a sexual predator who sleeps around with hundreds of women and eventually ends up being dragged down to hell for his many sins. It is the combination of Mozart’s witty music with Da Ponte’s libretto, which makes this work one of the most important operas ever written.

Following two performances in St Peter’s College Chapel, Don Giovanni was brought to the difficult venue of the Sheldonian theatre and met the challenge with success. Although there were occasional moments where the orchestra – conducted superbly by Beth Fitzpatrick – overpowered some of the singers, these operatic voices cut through the textures and highlighted the complexity of the music they were performing. There were also a few instances where the singers and orchestra weren’t quite together (probably as a result of the venue and the setup), but this did not detract from the overall performance.

I must admit that I wasn’t massively convinced by the overture to the opera. I felt the slow introduction wasn’t loud or dramatic enough, lacking a sense of attack, movement, or weight. However, the orchestra played Mozart’s music with sensitivity and elegance, and were not afraid of adding power and drama when prompted by Fitzpatrick. The music at the climax of the opera, where Don Giovanni gets dragged down to hell, is some of Mozart’s most terrifying (through the excessive use of diminished harmonies), and within this production it was performed in a way that was – quite literally – chilling.

The sheer volume produced by the orchestra was supplemented by Kyle Siwek’s enthusiastic timpani playing, which added a sense of depth and drive to the already complicated textures, matched by the powerful but controlled voice of Madeleine Ley (Il Commendatore).

I would have enjoyed a little more movement in some of the recitatives as they occasionally dragged; however, François Cloete’s continuo part on the harpsichord during these moments was particularly enjoyable. The recitatives connecting the arias of the opera flowed nicely, and the harpsichord arpeggiations and chords supported the singers well.

The star of the show was undeniably Ben Gilchrist as Don Giovanni. There was an amazing level of control within his voice and the different colours that he produced were incredible. The vocal shifts between dramatic, explosive, intimate, and seductive were only matched by his power and impeccable control of vibrato – something that can easily become overwhelming and obsessive. In the ‘Champagne Aria’, Gilchrist flew through his range with a level of vocal agility and flawless diction of the Italian libretto. By far, the best actor of the lot, he captured the witty but evil nature of Don Giovanni perfectly.

Fabian Helmrich as Leporello (the servant of Don Giovanni) contrasted Gilchrist, providing comedic moments throughout the opera, many of which had the audience bursting out in laughter. The ‘Catalogue Aria’ was well acted: the comedic timing of his movements and facial expressions balanced well with his vocal control. Although I enjoyed the lack of vibrato in much of Helmrich’s singing, a little more in certain moments might have provided better contrast and colouring.

The many duets, quartets, and quintets were handled beautifully, producing some particularly heart-wrenching moments. The voices of the different singers blended nicely, such as in the finale of Act 1, which had me at the edge of my seat, though on occasion, Sophie Akka’s deliberate high pitched operatic vibrato as Donna Anna was piercing and overwhelmed the balance of the other voices.

Some of the acting from the other singers left something to be desired. In comparison to Gilchrist’s fluidity and expression, the other cast members’ acting seemed a little wooden, stiff, and unnatural. Although the majority of the singers were well suited to their roles, some voices were drowned in the highly exposed acoustic of the Sheldonian.  

The staging was sparse throughout the opera in its entirety. I don’t think it worked in this production, but I can understand that the constraints of the budget probably didn’t allow for anything more. There was also no use of lighting in Act 1 which was disappointing; however, within Act 2, the lighting was impactful and it certainly filled a gap.

Overall, this production of Don Giovanni was successful and a joy to watch. This is a huge accomplishment for everyone involved in such a large-scale project, and I eagerly await the next production from the Oxford Student Opera Society.