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Seduction ... and retribution: 'Don Giovanni' demonstrates that these are not new themes

| Monday, Nov. 5, 2012, 3:13 p.m.
Jasmine Goldband
Michael Todd Simpson as Don Giovanni, Jennifer Holloway as Donna Elvira (center) and Caitlin Lynch as Donna Anna (right) at the Pittsburgh Opera. Jasmine Goldband | Tribune-Review
Jasmine Goldband
Michael Todd Simpson as Don Giovanni, Jennifer Holloway as Donna Elvira (left) and Caitlin Lynch as Donna Anna (right) at the Pittsburgh Opera. Jasmine Goldband | Tribune-Review
Pittsburgh Opera
Don Giovanni (Michael Todd Simpson, right) pretends to comfort Donna Anna (Caitlin Lynch, center) and offers his help to her and her fiance Don Ottavio (Sean Panikkar, left) in finding her father’s killer. Photo: David Bachman
Pittsburgh Opera
Don Giovanni (Michael Todd Simpson, left) douses his servant Leporello (Wayne Tigges) when Leporello admits fear of the “stone guest” – the Commendatore’s ghost, whom Giovanni has invited to dinner. Photo: David Bachman

Bad-boy fascination is not a recent development.

Long before Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart wrote his opera “Don Giovanni” in 1787, the charming and amoral hedonist (also known as Don Juan) had been presented many times in literature and in the theater.

Mozart's opera juxtaposes tragic and comic elements in bringing Don Giovanni to life on stage. For many opera enthusiasts and commentators, it is his greatest opera.

“It's all about the relationship with the audience, for them to immediately feel drawn to the opera because they are drawn to the characters,” says baritone Michael Todd Simpson, who will star in a new production created by Pittsburgh Opera.

Pittsburgh Opera will present four performances of “Don Giovanni” conducted by music director Antony Walker, starting Saturday and running through Nov. 11 at the Benedum Center, Downtown.

The cast includes Simpson as Don Giovanni; Wayne Tigges as Leporello, Don Giovanni's servant; Caitlin Lynch as Donna Anna; Hao Jiang Tian as her father, the Commendatore; Sean Panikkar as Don Ottavio, her fiancé; Jennifer Holloway as Donna Elvira, one of Don Giovanni's former lovers; Sari Gruber as Zerlin; and Joseph Barron as Masetto.

The opera begins with Donna Anna rushing out of her home, struggling to get away from Don Giovanni, who is forcing himself on her. Her father comes to her aid, but is killed by Don Giovanni. The rest of the opera presents Don Giovanni's incessant attempts at new conquests and escapes from those seeking justice. At the end of the opera, a stone statue of the Commendatore come to life and is invited by Don Giovanni to dinner. He will not repent even with his hand in the Stone Guest's icy grip of death.

Pittsburgh Opera's new production is by stage director Justin Wray, who designed the set and will use pre-existing costumes.

Wray is staging “Don Giovanni” for the first time, working his way through Mozart's operas with librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte. The others are “The Marriage of Figaro” and “Cosi fan tutte.” He's previously worked with Walker on four baroque operas.

As a director today, Wray says, “You have to decide where you want (the opera) to be and decide the rules of the culture you're in. The libretto is a hybrid: an Italian — Venetian — libretto written for Czech and Viennese audiences set in a country (Spain), which neither the composer nor librettist had visited. As a director, you could throw all that out the window and set it down the road today.”

Wray decided to stay with Mozart and Da Ponte's choice of a Spanish locale, picking Seville in particular.

“What is it about Seville and the operatic consciousness that so many take place there,” he asks – mentioning “The Barber of Seville,” “The Marriage of Figaro” and “Carmen.” “Having gone there recently, I had a light-bulb moment. We were in a culture still in Europe, but on the edge — superstitious, hyper-religious and not embracing the scientific and philosophic. This was the world that was refusing to modernize.

“Don Giovanni, the Casanova libertine archetype, doesn't believe in God. He's an extreme version of the new direction, who does not care about the rest of society because he doesn't believe in any higher form to control or regulate him,” says Wray. “He's a very-dangerous-ideas character bringing the society around him to its knees because it has no way of dealing with him.”

And, in the opera, it is the supernatural in the figure of the Stone Guest, not society, which brings Don Giovanni to justice.

Rehearsals have been going particularly well, according to the artists, not that “Don Giovanni” is an easy opera to stage.

“I'm enjoying (rehearsals) very much,” says Simpson. “Our conversations in rehearsal have been really interesting. (Wray) has so many ideas, it helps fill in the gaps — what the relationships are and where they came from. … What an audience should expect is any stereotypes they might have as far as opera goes are going to be wiped out. This is a really young cast full of spit and vigor. It is a fiery group.”

Walker is thrilled to be conducting “Don Giovanni” again. He's particularly keen to use his experience conducting earlier operas by Mozart to see him “growing up” in this masterpiece.

“I love listening to what my singers are offering me. Often, when I'm taking the first music rehearsals with singers there are certain things I know I'm going to ask for in interpretation, things I feel strongly about,” he says.

“But I try to not ask too much change at the first rehearsal, because I want to hear their interpretation within the parameters of my tempo, and with my gestures. I like to watch and listen to how he directs the singers and how they form a relationship. Then I like to put the icing on the cake. Perhaps we should take a little more time here. Maybe this tempo isn't for you. There is time for our interpretation to grow,” he adds.

Walker speaks of the Prague and Vienna versions of the opera, the one heard at the premiere and the changes the composer made to the score for its Vienna premiere in 1788. He jokes that he and Wray have created a version here that takes elements from each of Mozart's two.

“It's ironic. I like to be the composer's advocate,” Walker says. “When Mozart and Da Ponte created these two versions, there is no absolute evidence as to which Mozart really preferred. I like to think he was very open to having it dramatic streamlined.”

Mark Kanny is classical music critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7877 or

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