Opera Philadelphia:”Don Giovanni”

Opera Philadelphia, Season 2014 /2015
DON GIOVANNI ossia  Dissoluto Punito K.527
Dramma giocoso in two acts. Libretto of Lorenzo Da Ponte
Music by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Philadelphia Orchestra and Chorus
Conductor George Manahan
Chorus Master Elizabeth Braden
Director & Set Design Nicholas Muni
Costume Design David Burdick
Choreographer R.Colby Damon
Fight director Payson Burt
Lighting design Japhy Weidemann
Philadelphia, 25th  April 2014

Don Giovanni may be the La Gioconda of the Classical Era, requiring as it does a set of voices possessing vocal and expressive range, power, stamina combined with superb technique and beauty. Unlike La Gioconda it’s librettist did not feel compelled to conceal his name in an anagram and this is what permits the opera to succeed without the requisite vocal resources. In fact Da Ponte’s brilliant libretto properly utilized is so strong that it can carry a production in which neither orchestra nor stage have the depth of experience to fulfill Mozart’s sublime realization of a human comedy so dark one can only laugh.
But what’s an opera company to do in an age where the requisite voices are too expensive or rare to engage, and audiences are accustomed to American Idol or Eurovision? The experienced American stage director Nicholas Muni astutely takes full advantage of Da Ponte’s libretto, not just onstage, but on the supertitles above, using his concise translation of Da Ponte to engage the audience in the action and the humor, while moving his performers like chess pieces to tell the story. Muni’s Giovanni, surrounded by a cast of feckless sleepwalkers. scorns the conventional social-sexual framework, but his sociopathic nature ultimately leads him to his anti heroic destruction.
Muni designed the set as well and frames the action on a set consisting of large framed painting hung in various arrangements, , first with portraits, then empty ornate frames. At the end a stark frame disappears into an open backlit square when the Commendatore drags the agonized but unrepentant Don into the pit of Hell. Billowing purple curtains serve well to frame the banquet. Japhy Weiderman’s attractive lighting alternates between stark white slanted side lighting and purple shafts, and was occasionally marred by shaky follow-spotlight work. Movable 2-3 meter boxes of gold and black frame and reshape the flat stage, with the occasional chair downstage. Within this space. Muni tells the story well but the characters never really come to life. The considerable physical action and swordplay were proficiently coordinated by fight director Payson Burt, but choreographer R. Colby Damon was not as successful with the dances.
Like the Don himself Mozart’s vocal writing will take fresh young talent and wring it out mercilessly exposing every weakness in pursuit of his goals. A “modular” approach to casting: take bright young singers and plug them into roles based on physical type, yielded a uniformity of sound in which it was difficult to distinguish the voices of Zerlina from Anna or Elvira, or Leporello from Giovanni. The women all lacked some quality or register essential to their role. Even mezzo-soprano Cecilia Hall as Zerlina who has perhaps the most interesting voice of the evening, lacked the tender cantilena and dolcezza which redeems her character with such touching humanity.
Elvira’s Mi tradí suits Amanda Majeski very well but she lacks the necessary low-middle voice for the role, and she did not project effectively in much of the role. Mozart wrote Mi tradí for his Vienna Elvira and left out material from the Prague version. Similarly, Don Ottavio underwent a similar change but modern singers are often required to sing both versions.   Michelle Johnson’s Donna Anna lacked the dramatic vocal power and musical incisiveness required to make this role believable. She has stature and presence onstage but height alone doth not a Donna Anna make.   The same can be said of Don Giovanni (Elliot Madore) and his rebellious and envious servant, Leporello (Joseph Barron). Madore has the physique for the role but exudes nothing that explains his 2,065 conquests. Muni has him conquering various women throughout the evening but with no erotic or dramatic affect. Barron’s Leporello takes many a fall well, but comes across as merely peevish. Their interaction and well directed recitatives carried the story clearly., but their voices did not do the same for the music.   While the women were mostly at their best in the easier coloratura passages, the men showed themselves to best advantage when almost crooning. This had it’s best expression in tenor David Portillo’s lovely Dalla sua pace, where it is appropriate. His ornamented reprise section was interesting and well executed. Mozart composed this aria as a substitute for Il mio tesoro intanto, in Vienna, where the tenor’s strengths were not the long runs and phrases of the Prague tenor. Portillo’s attractive lyric sound lost polish when he leaned on the voice for forte phrases. and the long phrases and coloratura runs of Il mio tesor intanto were not up to the standard of his first aria.
Masetto, so often a young bass or baritone’s first feature role, seemed young in this cast only because of his initial difficulties following the conductor, but Wes Mason settled down and gave a good account of his role. Muni makes Masetto less sympathetic than the usually bumbling peasant paired with a smarter but ultimately tender bride. He may be more believable but this makes the Dramma less giocosa, and his mounting of Zerlina in the play-out of her second aria was at odds with the music. Nicholas Masters’ Commendatore made the right sound for the role-perhaps worrisome in a young singer, but hopefully intentional. He showed good stamina as the Zombie Commendatore, at least until dragged around by the long dying Giovanni. The orchestra of 60 played Mozart’s great score cleanly under the baton of George Manahan, who marvelously accompanied the recitativi on Cembalo as well. His graceful and subtly witty playing had a musical and dramatic unity with the stage that was lacking in the orchestra.. With only four or five first violins the orchestral sound was murky and unleavened.  18 years after the Prague premiere of Don Giovanni, Lorenzo Da Ponte arrived in Philadelphia from London. 21 years leter he attended it’s first performance in the United States. Now nearly 188 years later, his spirit was strong in the city of his arrival, entertaining an audience, and leaving them thinking not just of those who wantonly break the frame of normalcy, but of those who never escape it.