Opera review: Don Giovanni, Opera Australia

Ukrainian baritone Andrei Kymach thrills as Mozart’s doomed reprobate.

It’s no surprise that Mozart’s masterwork Don Giovanni is one of opera’s most popular productions. From the dramatic opening bars of the overture to the final inferno as the leading man faces his eternal damnation, Don Giovanni is opera writ large. 

The story is well-known and follows the legend of Don Juan: Don Giovanni is an entitled aristocrat and a serial womaniser. He shamelessly uses his power, his position and his charm, to seduce every woman he meets. But his life of debauchery is about to catch up with him and he meets his fate when the earth opens up and he is consumed in flames. This is, as we are told, ‘the fate of all sinners’ making the audience positively squirm as the cast points at them and intones ‘the deaths of evil-doers will be a fitting end’. Don’t say Mozart didn’t warn you!

The plot is, of course, troublesome and there are warnings online and in the venue that: ‘This production contains simulated sex scenes and depictions of sexual violence.’ There is abuse, rape, murder and deceit aplenty, but the villain of the piece does get his just desserts and so it is a morality tale too. The fact that Mozart wrote this as an opera buffa, or comic opera, shows just how much times have changed. Even so, there is humour to be found, especially in the relationship between Don Giovanni and his long-suffering manservant Leporello.

These roles are played magnificently by Ukrainian baritone Andrei Kymach in the title role and French-Israeli bass-baritone Yuri Kissin as Leporello. This is the Australian stage debut for both Kymach and Kissin and they do not disappoint. Kymach is commanding with impressive stage presence and a rich, smooth voice full of dark chocolate and the finest old tawny port.

Alongside his master, Kissin makes every moment on stage his own and revels in the comedic aspects of his character. The Act 1 Catalogue Aria (‘Madamina, il catalogo è questo’), in which Leporello details his master’s thousands of conquests, is a gem. Kissin sings with clear phrasing and engaging range and really brings the words to life. On stage together for most of the three hours, Kymach and Kissin are a formidable duo. 

There are also strong roles here for Don Giovanni’s conquests – or attempted conquests – with soprano Cathy-Di Zhang as Donna Zerlina and emerging principal Bronwyn Douglass as Donna Elvira and the young singer Sophie Salvesani  as Donna Anna. Salvesani, a participant in Opera Australia’s Young Artist Program who had her main stage debut just last year in La Traviata, shows an impressive assurance here.

Sophie Salvesani as Donna Anna and Juan De Dios Mateos as Don Ottavio in Opera Australia’s 2023 production of ‘Don Giovanni’ at the Sydney Opera House. Photo: Keith Saunders.

David Parkin is marvellous as her suffering father, the Commendatore, both in life and after death. The startling tableaus for his funeral scene are choreographed with precision. And the orgiastic masked ball at the end of the first act is spine-tingling, especially with its added thunder and lightning. These scenes work especially well in the more intimate space of the Joan Sutherland Theatre.

This is a further revival of David McVicar’s 2014 production, and regular opera-goers may well have seen it before. That’s not to take anything away from the first rate performances and the magnificent staging under acclaimed revival director Warwick Doddrell. The monochromatic sets and costumes, both by designer Robert Jones, are excellent and do a lot of the heavy lifting in setting the mood of the production. The mechanics of the set are also very sophisticated.

Lighting designer David Finn additionally deserves credit for his role in creating the different tones as the story progresses. There is more than a touch of the gothic here, but Mozart’s score and Lorenzo Da Ponte’s libretto demand nothing less. 

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The Opera Australia Chorus, under Chorus Master Paul Fitzsimon, are a delight and really enhance each of their scenes. And a special mention, too, to the Opera Australia Orchestra down in the pit under Acting Concertmaster Huy-Nguyen Bui and the very expressive Conductor Guillaume Tourniaire whose wealth of experience shines through the music. A final accolade goes to pianist Siro Battaglin, a member of OA Orchestra for 10 years, who played the fortepiano superbly throughout, seated at a raised dais front-of-stage.  

This is a superb production of a classic work that will delight both opera buffs and newcomers alike.

Don Giovanni, Opera Australia
Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House
Don Giovanni will be performed until 17 February 2023. 

Dr Diana Carroll is a writer, speaker, and reviewer based in Adelaide. Her work has been published in newspapers and magazines including the Sydney Morning Herald, The Australian, Woman's Day, and B&T. Writing about the arts is one of her great passions.