One can make a case for Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Don Giovanni being the best opera ever written. There is Mozart’s inimitable music, of course, but also the story, at once irrepressible and and morally-nuanced, perky yet profound. Yet, with two 90-minute acts, it can sometimes drag. But not on this opening night.
Editor’s note: this article has been updated to include the cast of the 18 May performance.
The three and a half hours (including intermission) raced by. The singing was characterized not so much by remarkable individual performances, although there were some, as by chemistry and coherence. The Hong Kong Sinfonietta, under the direction of conductor Martins Ozolins from the Latvian National Opera and Ballet, kept everything moving briskly along. The sets were simple, moveable arched and tiled colonnades, attractive in earth tones and pastels which might have evoked Macau as much as Seville.
Despite a certain tendency in recent years to treat the opera darkly, director Jean-Louis Grinda’s Don Giovanni was lighter in tone, emphasizing, in his words, that it is all a “game” or “fable”. This is not, of course, the only way to interpret this complex and often subtle opera, but it complemented and suited the energy and freshness of the young cast.
This Don Giovanni was Hong Kong’s first chance to hear soprano Louise Kwong, in the lead role of Donna Elvira, since she got picked up by Fabbrica, the Young Artist programme of the Rome Opera, last year. She left a singer with promise, and she returns as an accomplished performer who can command the stage—her voice has both strength and beauty and she evidently knows how to use both—and an ability to make a role her own. Kwong is one soprano worth making a special effort to go hear.
At the other end of vocal and age range was veteran bass Hao Jiang Tian, whose Commendatore, Donna Anna’s murdered father and the fateful stone guest who returns in the finale to drag Don Giovanni off to perdition, hearkened back to memorable performances of a generation ago: a deep, resonant voice capable of a father’s empathy and a divine avenging gravitas.
The evening’s Don Giovanni was Mexican-American Richard Ollarsaba who brought an Iberian flavor to what is, after all, a Spanish part, more a Don Juan than a Don Giovanni. His was a brooding, if mellifluous, presence. He was well-paired with the energetic and comedic Joseph Barron as Leporello. The evening’s Don Ottavio, tenor David Blalock, was—by accident or design—made up to look the spitting image of the celebrated (and contemporaneous to the original play) 17th-century poet Francisco de Quevedo; if not coincidence, this was an amusing inside joke. Also from the United States was the evening’s Donna Anna, Victoria Cannizzo, who breathed some humanity into a role that can all too often come off as stiff and Victorian.
One of more pleasant of the evening’s several pleasant surprises was local soprano Alison Lau who delivered a sweetly (and correctly) sung Zerlina, the peasant bride wooed by Giovanni. Her last outing with Opera Hong Kong was in the much smaller role of Lauretta in a semi-staged 2017 summer performance of Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi; she made an impression then, but this was a much more sustained outing. She was matched in tone and temperament by Apollo Wong as Masetto.
The production’s second (equally well-sung and performed) evening was darker. Marcelo Guzzo’s Don Giovanni was brutish; Guzzo exudes character. Alex Soare’s Leporello, on the other hand, was a lout who looked like a sailor on the lam. Vocally and dramatically, the two formed a riveting pair. Katherine Whyte’s Donna Anna was heartfelt and believable. Tenor Chen Yong, well-known to Hong Kong audiences, may have found his perfect role in Don Ottavio; Mozart seems to suit him. Sammy Chien played an assertive Masetto while Joyce Wong’s Zerlina was considerably less demure than the peasant girl sometimes is. This was, I believe, Wong’s first leading part in a major Opera Hong Kong production; it is unlikely, based on this outing, to be her last.
And sometimes Hong Kong gets lucky. American soprano Michelle Lange recently (more or less) relocated here. Her striking performance of Donna Elvira was strongly sung and strong-willed.
One can discern a correlation between successful opera companies and appealing local singers: despite opera being an international art form, French, Russian, American and Korean opera houses generally rely on and provide vehicles disproportionately for French, Russian, American and Korean singers.
Perhaps, just perhaps, this production of Don Giovanni, which excelled despite—or more likely, because of—its young cast without (Hao Jiang Tian excepted) an internationally-renowned headliner, with a strong complement of local singers in lead parts more than holding their own, displays a formula for future sustainability for Hong Kong opera.
Don Giovanni at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre Grand Theatre continues tonight and Sunday 19 May.
Peter Gordon is the editor of the Asian Review of Books. He provided subtitles and programme synopsis for this production.