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Zerlina sung by Aimee Toshney with Masetto  sung by Matthew Tilley. Pictures: Martin Cassell

Don Giovanni

Heritage Opera

Rendall Hall, Rye St. Antony School, Oxford

****

WHILE certain areas of the UK are lamentably short of good quality opera, few are as fortunate as those who receive a visit from the enterprising, clever and amusing company Heritage Opera.

Founded originally as a touring ensemble travelling widely in the North West (eg to Preston,  Lancaster, The Wirral, Burnley and Skipton), Heritage, which is currently delivering a vivid, canny and punchy production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni to audiences old and new, has, to its credit, gradually spread its wings both northwards and southwards.

Included among its current venues are Marlborough (in Wiltshire) and Oxford, and further east, Hatfield in Hertfordshire and Boston in Lincs. It even pentrates as far north as Stirling; and one of its daring repertoire pieces, the Polish composer Moniuszko’s Halka, virtually the national opera of that country, they took to the celebrated Polish centre in West London.

Heritage runs itself on a comparative shoestring. So why are its productions so engaging? There is a tremendous spirit of fun, a flair for paradox and irony and comic improbability; a marked intelligence in the manner of presentation; and a bold sense of the mischievous offsetting the serious - Donna Elviraideal for a staging like their rightly praised, The Magic Flute, and now their latest hot production of Don Giovanni.

What’s more, from the outset Heritage has betrayed a knack of engaging the audience by vivid, sometimes cheeky characterisation, perceptive, enterprising productions, excellent musical judgement and timings, and an instrumental assurance that buoys it up and carries it along, be it keyboard alone, a small ensemble or (as here in Oxford, at Rye St. Antony School, on the edge of Headington) as a very substantial orchestra, the Isis Chamber Orchestra.

Donna Elvira (Sarah Helsby Hughes) with Leporello's scurrilous book

One of their greatest successes over the years has been creative casting. This applies to both regulars and, often enough, well-chosen newcomers. An ever-reliable kernel forms the basis of the company’s continuing run of successes, two especially: the tenor Nick Sales, whose beauty of tone and invariably gorgeous, pure diction (here, a fabulusly intoned Don Ottavio) has contributed to the triumph of several of Heritage’s strongest stagings, and soprano Sarah Helsby Hughes, who also directs, and has a phenomenal range - electrifying in both high soprano register (Heritage’s searing Queen of the Night, for instance, and latterly a magnificent, equally fearsome Tosca) and low mezzo range, and who brings with it a forceful personality and strong presence which rendered her Donna Elvira here, numbed by the Don’s lies and betrayal, but vigorously handbagging him in return, one of the notable successes, rich and rewarding, in this Mozart staging: indeed, Elvira grew as a character into a constant presence, which gave her personality even more moral fibre than many Elviras do.

The conductor - and writer of an unusually fine set of programme notes - is Chris Gill. Heritage’s founder, and the steadying force who has lifted the company to the high musical standards that are its hallmark - Gill brings a firm pair of hands, a musical sensibility that teases the best out of repertoire from Mozart to Britten, and an utter confidence in what he is doing which he invariably communicates to his team (here, the Isis Chamber Orchestra) on and offstage. From the violent opening chords to the Commendatore’s final inevitable revenge Gill’s eminent care and sense of pacing constantly produced results from those onstage.

Quite apart from the solos, the crucial ensembles - the Act I quartet - some superb orchestral playing - and near the close the trio (splendidly rounded off  by polished woodwind); Act I’s final septet, rivetingly sung by all; superb violins for Helsby Hughes’ first Act 2 solo, and paired clarinets rounding off her third passage in Act 2); the folksy wedding dances whose lightness prefaced the tense finale; Don Giovanniand the wondrous solo clarinet that round them off: these were a few of the mesmerising details in this generally gripping reading of the score. Gill’s first rate management informs everything as he conducts: the players respond eagerly to his secure handling.

The set was somewhat makeshift, possibly not up to Heritage’s best - a collection of chiffon-like curtaining, but redeemed by several aspects: a set of steps which provided several levels; and lights which produced a series of contrated effects, with blue, purple, orange, red, pink that provided quite effective and attractive contrast, lending different scenes surprisingly different atmospheres. 

Don Giovanni (Victor Sgarbi) lures on Zerlina (Aimee Toshney)

Chinese-born Franco Kong has a host of roles to his credit, and that certainly showed here. His Leporello was beautifully-voiced (not just the catalogue aria - superbly accompanied - early on - ‘in Spain, 1003’, but time and again he shone in recitative).

Amusing, entertaining, nervous and edgy, and looking like an out-of-work coolie, and a wonderful feel for comic asides, he delivered a sharp-witted, canny performance that effortlessly matched up to Brazilian Victor Sgarbi’s swaggering, manoeuvring and utterly ruthless Don.

Sgarbi too has a voice well worth hearing: rich in tone, lucidly enunciated, and catching the overriding cynicism of this Spanish rake aptly and cleverly. He strutted to good effect, quite incapable of seeing the fiery doom his grotesque activities will land him in. Giovanni’s and Leporello’s exchange of recitative was just one of many fine quick-fire batterings, helped along by Benjamin Cox’s alert harpsichord repetiteur. 

If Elvira shone especially among the appallingly treated female roles, the others were a success as well. Aimee Toshney’s Zerlina - charmingly gullible, wickedly taken advantage of - produced a real treat with her two main arias. Just a fraction edgy and loud, yet also luscious and enchanting. A notable success was Andrea Tweedale as Donna Anna - mortified at her father’s brutal slaying, and as the opera progressed, a revelation in Anna’s prayerful laments and soaring coloratura. For Donna Anna’s scenes to be so energised and vibrant was a considerable treat, and overall her efforts seem to have made her the audience’s favourite.

Matthew Tilley’s Masetto ensured that his duets with Zerlina - including the row (‘Batti, batti’), and with a nice pairing during the folk dances. But one of the highlights was Paul Hudson’s Commendatore. Seen ominously behind a curtain, like an eerie stone statue, and then emerging clad in grim grey armour, he produced a voice that was just what the Commendatore needs: penetrating, threatening, forceful and commanding. Thanks to him and the dramatic power of Gill’s orchestra, this Don Giovanni ended as strongly and satisfyingly as it began.

Roderic Dunnett

25-06-16 

Heritage Opera

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