Every once in a while, I have to wonder, “What would Mozart think?” I got an answer at the season’s opening of “Don Giovanni” Saturday evening, because, in the production by Sarasota Opera, Mozart’s masterpiece was probably as close to its original concept as you could get. The result was an evening of truly satisfying music-making and theater.
Conductor Anthony Barrese kept the music going at a clip that was just a little faster than most other productions and recordings, but never so fast that the singers couldn’t breathe and phrase beautifully.
The orchestra’s ability to play at that pace showed off its remarkable facility. And, in all, it was three of the shortest, most enjoyable hours we’ve spent in the theater in a long time.
Mozart called this opera a “Dramma Giocoso,” meaning it’s to be played as a serious work with humor. Lorenzo Da Ponte played with that dichotomy by making each of his characters a contradiction in human emotions, with Don Ottavio pushing his fiancée, Donna Anna, to marry him seconds after her father’s murder at the hands of Don Giovanni, who’d just attempted to rape Anna. Not the best of times for a marriage proposal, so, in its untimeliness, it becomes amusing.
When Leporello, the Don’s servant, reads the immense list of his master’s amorous conquests to Donna Elvira — herself another acquisition of Giovanni who’s been savored and dumped — there’s laughter and sadness in her plight, especially when Leporello tells her that in Spain he’s had a mere 1,003 women … (“Ma in Ispagna son già mille e tre”). And their names, ages and measurements are all listed in his little black book.
Stage Director Peter Kozma managed to combine Mozart’s wondrous sense of humor with the pathos of the characters and made them flesh-and-blood humans who happened to be singing as they told us their tales. The second act was a bit more static than necessary, but the overall energy kept the story moving with funny and poignant bits of acting adding to each character’s delineation.
David P. Gordon outdid himself with a set that cleverly opened and closed, revealing palaces, gardens, courtyards, cemeteries and intimate and formal interior rooms. Ken Yunker’s lighting illumined those sets deftly, while Howard Tsvi Kaplan’s costumes seemed historically correct while also flattering the various body types on stage.
Vocally, this was one of the finest casts we’ve seen in this opera. Lee Poulis makes a lithe, young, virile Don Giovanni who shows no trepidation or apprehension about his inordinately twisted lifestyle, until he grasps the icy hand of the Commendatore’s ghost and is plummeted into the fiery depths of the netherworld. Benjamin Gelfand’s Commendatore was stalwart and gratifyingly unwavering (something that cannot be said of some others in this role, who display such a wide vibrato one wonders how the stone in which they’re cast hasn’t shattered like cement in an earthquake).
Andrew Gangestad keeps getting better and better as Leporello, displaying a flair for comedy while his beautifully colored voice soars across the footlights with depth and substance. Joshua Kohl, whom we last saw as Tamino in last season’s “Magic Flute,” has a brilliant tenor that, like last year, resounds and pings in ensembles but seems a little choked in solo arias. Still, his “Il mio tesoro” was a masterpiece of breath control and lovely line. Patrick McNally, a most promising Studio Artist, had just the right blend of bumbling peasant and heroic lover to make his Masetto endearing.
Sarah Asmar, another Studio Artist, is not just another pretty face or voice. Her clear, well-produced soprano balanced charmingly with her excellent understanding of her role to make her a delightful Zerlina, the innocent peasant willing to be seduced by the Don but also wise enough to know Masetto is the better man.
Danielle Walker’s Donna Elvira had just the right touch of a woman scorned melded with a loving tenderness to make her a sympathetic, rather than a wimpy, woman. Her “Mi Tradi” held just the right combination of fury, moral rectitude and pity to make her a vocally and emotionally interesting character. And Christina Pier’s radiant voice and firm resolve to seek vengeance made her Donna Anna shine.
This “Don Giovanni” was exceptional in all ways, especially in the beautiful musical ornaments that were added to every aria by every character. They were stylistically correct and perfectly conceived, giving those of us with a past history of this opera a chance to hear it again for the first time.