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SCRUTINY | Superlative Vocalism Marks COC Revival Of Don Giovanni

By Joseph So on February 5, 2024

The Canadian Opera Company’s revival of Don Giovanni (Photo: Michael Cooper)
The Canadian Opera Company’s revival of Don Giovanni (Photo: Michael Cooper)

Gordon Bintner (Don Giovanni), Paolo Bordogna (Leporello), Mané Galoyan (Donna Anna), Anita Hartig (Donna Elvira), Ben Bliss (Don Ottavio), Simone McIntosh (Zerlina), Joel Allison (Masetto), David Leigh (Commendatore); Canadian Opera Company Orchestra and Chorus, Johannes Debus, conductor; Kasper Holton, director; Amy Lane, revival director; Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, February 2, 2024. Additional performances on Feb. 4, 7, 9, 15, 17, 24. Tickets here.

The Canadian Opera Company’s second production of its winter season, Mozart’s Don Giovanni, opened to a gratifyingly full house last Friday. It was last staged by the COC in 2015, in the controversial, Regie-driven Dmitri Tcherniakov production that drew rather divided opinions. This time around, it’s the Kasper Holton production that has been a staple at Covent Garden since 2014, a co-production that CG shares with the Gran Teatre del Liceu (Barcelona), the Israeli Opera, and the Houston Grand Opera.

One of the most popular among Mozart’s oeuvre of 22 operas, it is consistently ranked in the top ten of the most performed operas in the world. A quick check of the COC statistics reveals that it was staged in the inaugural season in 1950 and subsequently revived a good ten times. As a long-time COC audience member, I have fond memories of many wonderful Don Giovanni performances over the years. One that comes readily to mind is the 1988 production starring the unforgettable father-son duo of Louis and Gino Quilico as Leporello and Don Giovanni.

The current revival is no less impressive, featuring a splendid cast made up of homegrown talent and imported stars. Making a welcome return is Canadian bass-baritone Gordon Bintner, a former member of the COC Ensemble Studio who has gone on to a big career in Europe. His beautiful, warm timbre, with its smooth, soft-grained mezza voce, not to mention plenty of stage charisma, make him an ideal Don Giovanni. In his COC debut as his sidekick Leporello, Italian bass-baritone Paolo Bordogna sang with ringing tone and acted up a storm.

The Canadian Opera Company’s revival of Don Giovanni (Photo: Michael Cooper)
The Canadian Opera Company’s revival of Don Giovanni (Photo: Michael Cooper)

Two of the three women made their Company debut on opening night. Fast-rising Armenian soprano Mané Galoyan (Donna Anna) sang with lovely, youthful tone. Her instrument is more lyric than dramatic, but with enough power for a striking “Or sai chi l’onore.” The limpid quality of her “Non mi dir” was an unalloyed pleasure. Romanian soprano Anita Hartig was equally fine as Donna Elvira, her “Mi tradi” a standout. Canadian mezzo Simone McIntosh, another Ensemble Studio graduate, was a gleaming-toned, spunky Zerlina, turning essentially a terza donna into a starring role.

American tenor Ben Bliss, last heard at the COC as Ferrando in Cosi fan tutte, returned as a terrific Don Ottavio, singing “Il mio tesoro” with beauty of tone and phenomenally long breath. Also worthy of praise as Masetto is Canadian bass-baritone Joel Allison, who’s having a flourishing career in Germany. Last but definitely not least is American bass David Leigh as a vocally commanding Commendatore, with all the gravitas one would expect in this character.

The unit set by Es Devlin is a two-level rotating cube, creating lots of separate spaces for the actions to take place. A rather plain-looking structure, a bit dull, except that it comes vibrantly alive with projections originally designed by Luke Halls, here revived by Gareth Shelton. Some projected images were not easy to decipher while others were obvious, such as the names of all the women — well, not quite 2065 of them — who were amorous conquests of Don Giovanni. Overall, the projections and elaborate lighting design contributed greatly to the storytelling.

The COC orchestra was in fine form, in a piece they must have played a hundred times over the years. Kudos to COC Music Director Johannes Debus, who must be the busiest maestro in town, conducting both winter productions. If he was tired, it didn’t show, as the tempo was alternately brisk and weighty as it should be given the subject matter, the three hours of music went by in a flash.

The Canadian Opera Company’s revival of Don Giovanni (Photo: Michael Cooper)
The Canadian Opera Company’s revival of Don Giovanni (Photo: Michael Cooper)

One directorial quirk happened at the end — the Finale was cut. The opera ends with Don Giovanni descending into hell. To my knowledge, the last time the ending was cut in a COC show was Handel’s Semele a dozen years ago. I remember hearing the pre-recorded Finale in the lobby as we were leaving the theatre. Cutting the Finale in Mozart, while not unheard of, is still rare. I had a chat with Canadian bass-baritone Doug MacNaughton at the reception who told me that in the Opera de Quebec production he sang in a couple of seasons ago, the same cut took place.

One could make a case for a happy ending in Mozart’s time. A “dramma giocoso” like Don Giovanni, with the (anti)hero going to hell, was probably too much of a downer for the aristocrats and rich folks who likely made up the entire audience. Perhaps that’s why Mozart composed a more cheerful final chorus, something more acceptable in his time? One could say such artificial cheerfulness means nothing to us, the 21st Century audience. I buy the reasoning, but darn it, I still wished I had heard this magnificent cast singing every last note!

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Joseph So
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