Ode to an unrepentant trickster


I’M in charge here! Don Giovanni (Lukas Johan) manhandles his trusty servant Leporello (Christopher Vale). Photograph courtesy Brooklyn Theatre.

A YOUNG WOMAN survives what is tantamount to a rape to discover her father murdered by her attacker. This is the kind of horrendous storyline which you may well expect to be emblazoned in a current newspaper. But no, this is Mozart at his most mature, in Don Giovanni (1787), an opera that punctuated with the formalities and the levity of eighteenth century Europe is by and large a tale of morality in which the bad guy, sexy and arrogant though he may be, sees his comeuppance in a world coloured by the virtue of women and the vengeance of ghosts. And all of this is presented with levity and clarity in a beautiful rendition of the work hosted in Pretoria this month.

And while you may watch this work and ponder how women such as the characters Donna Anna, Donna Alvira and Zerlina – and all other 1 800 fair maidens on Don Giovanni’s famous list of sexual conquest – may have responded in a #MeToo generation, this rendition of the work does not bend to contemporary values in any crude or crass way.

Your attention remains completely riveted through the almost three hour duration of the work, however. This is because of two primary elements: the timeless and profound sense of authenticity in the emotions articulated, and the work’s beautiful sense of Mozartian integrity. In short, it’s a real treat.

But more than the grand narrative headlined by arguably one of the western world’s finest and best known composers is the intimate details of the characters presented by the cast. And here, Deidre van Schalkwyk in the role of Donna Anna shines with a fierce sense of humanity that drives the work. A young woman betrothed to Don Ottavio (Antonio Gores), she faces the complexity of loyalty to her dead father and living lover in the face of having had her virtue threatened. It’s a big deal.

The plot is not as simple as that, and characters such as Leporello (Christopher Vale), the servant of Don Giovanni, add a touch of buffoonery and physical playfulness to the work. Not, of course to forget the licentious chap central to it all, himself. Don Giovanni is performed by Lukas Johan, who alas on opening night was not in his best form. And while the voice fought valiantly with the ensemble of instruments, it was not consistently audible above them. Having said that, the stage presence of Johan and Vale is enormous, adding to the clarity of the roles, their quandaries and their idiosyncrasies. Arguably the finest male operatic presence of all, in this work was that of Thomas Mohlamme in the almost cameo, but immensely central role of Il Commendatore, the doomed dad in question who comes back from the dead to see that justice prevails.

Further to all of this, the potent sense of structural organisation makes you realise – even if subconsciously – that you’re in good hands here. The surtitles are spot on and legible. The instrumental ensemble is not a full orchestra but has the musical presence and authority to contain all of this beautiful opera without letting you feel compromised. The lighting boasts clarity but not blandness and the set, replete with clean lines and strong architectural interstices, is clear and adaptable but lacking in tricks and gimmicks to obscure the focus from the work itself.

The Brooklyn Theatre’s Don Giovanni season is sufficiently potent, friendly and conforming to Mozartian standards to put opera back into cultural imperatives, certainly in this province.

  • Don Giovanni composed by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart features libretto by Lorenzo Da Ponte and is directed by Riana van Vollenhoven. It features design by Willem Vogel (set) and is performed by Lourens de Jager, Antonio Gores, Lukas Johan, Thomas Mohlamme, Allyn Nienaber, Christopher Vale, Deidre van Schalkwyk and Unella Wimbles, accompanied by the Brooklyn Theatre Salon Ensemble under the baton of Jaco van Staden at the Brooklyn Theatre in Menlo Park, Pretoria until January 27. Call 012 460 6033.

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