Review: Christopher Dunham embodies Don Giovanni for SOLO

by | Mar 6, 2019 | Featured, Reviews

On Mar. 2, Southern Ontario Lyric Opera produced a fully staged production of Don Giovanni.  Under the artistic direction of maestro Sabatino Vacca, this relatively new company’s mandate is to promote “the magnificent world of operatic entertainment across Southern Ontario.” It has been exciting to watch SOLO operas develop from stand and sing, concert-form productions to more complex, fully staged creations.  

To produce an effective Don Giovanni is no small feat, but SOLO managed to do this while maintaining the artistic integrity and genius of Mozart’s compelling drama/comedy. Maestro Vacca conducted the score with sensitivity and panache. From the first crashing D minor chord of the overture to the final scene’s complex ensemble, one had no doubt that Vacca was in sync with his players and his singers. The orchestra continues to improve under Vacca’s inspired leadership.

Julie and Christopher

Julie Ludwig (Zerlina) and Christopher Dunham (Don Giovanni) in SOLO’s Don Giovanni

The very nature of a regional opera company makes for an interesting variation in voices—from local artists at the beginning of their careers to seasoned professionals. John Holland (Leporello) was a fine actor and an excellent foil for Christopher Dunham’s lascivious Don. Holland was at his strongest when singing in ensemble numbers, and was particularly effective in the final death scene’s trio. Sara Papini was a physically beautiful and vocally impressive Donna Anna whose voice embraced both the drama and the vocal gymnastics that this difficult role requires. Susan Elizabeth Brown captured the pathos and comedy of Donna Elvira and her “Ah, che mi dice mai” was met with prolonged applause. Julie Ludwig made a lovely Zerlina, embodying the innocence of the role with her beguiling “Batti, batti, o bel Masetto.”  Adam Sperry (Don Ottavio) and Ryan Hoffman (Masetto) were strong ensemble singers and were particularly impressive in the opera’s finale.

But the evening belonged to two singers—Dunham as the Don himself and Kyle Lehmann as the Commendatore. Watching Dunham’s stunning performance, it was hard to believe this was his first time playing the titular role—he was the embodiment of Mozart’s narcissistic seducer. Whether lasciviously licking his fingers after eating, leaning on a table ogling women, or reacting disdainfully to the ‘stone guest,’ Dunham held the audience’s rapt attention. From the dulcet tones of “Là ci darem la mano” to the explosive “Finch’han dal vino,” Dunham’s powerful and expressive voice easily handled the full range the role demanded.  

Christopher and Kyle

Kyle Lehmann (the Commendatore) and Christopher Dunham (Don Giovanni) in SOLO’s Don Giovanni

Lehmann was a chilling Commendatore, leaving the audience wanting to hear more of his rich baritone voice. Don Giovanni’s death scene was superbly acted and beautifully sung by both Lehmann and Dunham. Given the sparse staging and the minimalistic lighting, the two singers were remarkable in their ability to make the supernatural scene believable and terrifying.  

The SOLO chorus was in fine form and director Vincent Thomas was skilled in his management of crowd scenes and eliciting individual characterizations from chorus members. His fight scenes were particularly effective. Gabe Garziano’s sets were serviceable and were enhanced by Chris Humphries creative use of projections. Where regional companies often fall short of the mark is with the costuming. The chorus members were dressed in a mish mash of outfits, making one wonder in which era the opera was set. The leads’ outfits were equally confusing;  Zerlina looked like she was dressed for a ’50s sock hop, while her fiancée Masetto’s costume was straight out of the 18th century. Every character onstage counts and the audience’s ability to discern anachronistic elements should never be underestimated.

Ryan, Christopher and Julie

Ryan Hofman (Masetto), Christopher Dunham (Don Giovanni) and Julie Ludwig (Zerlina) in SOLO’s Don Giovanni

Opera is a complex and expensive art form. Vacca and his SOLO team have been wise in their step by step approach to ramp up production values. They should be commended for bringing opera to Southern Ontario while also showcasing the talents of emerging and more experienced artists for regional audiences.

All photos: John Martens

Dawn Martens

Dawn Martens received a 2010 Ruby Award for opera education, as well as a 2020 Governor General’s History Award for Excellence in Teaching for an online children’s production of Brundibar. A writer for Opera Canada for over 20 years, she is currently the host of Opera Night in Canada on 100.9 Canoe FM.



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