What do you get when you combine a beer tent, a former gravel pit, and hell? If it’s Highlands Opera Studio’s production of The Leporello Diaries: an Unsolved Mystery you are referring to, then the answer is musical magic. Never one to be stopped by challenging circumstances, Stage Director and Production Designer Valerie Kuinka met the time and resource restrictions of COVID head on. She and her creative team produced an abridged version of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, live, in a semi-enclosed tent in Haliburton, Ontario on Aug. 19th and 20th. The opera was narrated by Richard Margison portraying Charles, a writer reading the long-lost diary of his great-great-great Uncle Leporello. The text itself, a witty combination of recitative summary and personal reflections by Leporello, was written by Lauren Margison. Richard Margison’s deadpan delivery of lines like “My master could not rest before bedding the barn girl” or—after listing the Don’s famous sexual conquests, “My God he must have been in good shape!”—were comedic gold.
The simple and effective sets enhanced a production where the real focus, unlike some lavish productions I have seen, was Mozart’s characters themselves. The young artists who portrayed these dramatic gems were in fine form. Dylan Wright was a sonorous and physically elegant Leporello whose harlequin-like light makeup highlighted the role’s comedic nature. Geoffrey Schellenberg was a menacing Don, his beautifully phrased “Là ci darem la mano” contrasting with his powerful death throe vocalizations. Lauren Margison’s (Donna Anna) “Non mi dir” demonstrated a mastery of her lower register while also commanding the higher vocal fireworks at the end of this show stopper. River Guard was a suave Don Ottavio, whose expressive legato would make any leading lady swoon. Sara Schabas was a delightfully coy Zerlina, singing a very sensuous “Vedrai, carino”. Tamar Simon’s (Donna Elvira) “Ah! chi mi dice mai” contained impressive mastery of its vocal fluctuations with securely attacked high notes. Brenden Friesen did double duty as Masetto and Il Commendatore, singing and acting with such versatility that one completely forgot it was the same artist. His fatal invitation to dinner, “Don Giovanni, a cenor teco,” was spellbinding, dramatically chilling, and vocally magnificent.
Tasked with conducting and accompanying the singers was Stéphane Mayer, whose musical direction was never rushed, carefully capturing the nuances of Mozart’s sensitive dynamics. The fact that the ensembles were so musically unified is a testament to Mayer’s excellent collaboration with the singers. The fact that the audience was unphased that Mayer was playing an electronic piano was proof of his technical mastery. The tent itself was an acoustically friendly space located in beautiful Abbey Gardens, a lush organic farm in an educational greenspace of 300 acres. The setting added to the sensory delights of the evening. As the landscape darkened around the lit tent, the Don’s life was also plunged into darkness, making David Sweeney’s terrifying lighting in the death scene even more impressive, along with Beth Kipping’s lugubrious makeup on Friesen. After the opera, the audience stepped out into the beautiful Haliburton countryside under a full moon. If this was going to hell and back, I’d gladly do it again.
More information about The Leporello Diaries: an Unsolved Mystery can be found here.