Review: Setting 'Don Giovanni' in bullring reins in opera's potency
By Mark Kanny
Published: Sunday, Nov. 4, 2012, 8:52 p.m.
To some degree, masterpieces stand on their own. Few performances of them achieve their full potential. Few are so bad they completely ruin the experience.
Pittsburgh Opera unveiled a new production of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's “Don Giovanni” on Friday night at the Benedum Center. It was problematic, both dramatically and musically. As a result, the opera's greatness was only partially achieved.
Stage director Justin Way made his Pittsburgh Opera debut tackling Mozart's masterpiece for the first time. He decided to set the opera in Seville, Spain, and to use a bullfighting ring for his set. Although there are doors at the sides and back, and also movable panels in the big central space, this set soon wore out its welcome.
Near the start of the opera, when Donna Anna and Don Giovanni entered fighting on a balcony that circles the set, one worried for the singers' safety because the set shook as they moved. Another elevated section was unstable in the second act.
The most absurd moment occurred in the second act to prepare for the entrance of the Commendatore. A huge black-and-white image of an angel, dozens of feet high, was rolled out from the left wing and sat there, looking intrusive and cheap.
Way's conception of the title role also brought cardboard to mind. Michael Todd Simpson performed it with energy and conviction, but this Don Giovanni was just a villain. There was none of an authentic Don Giovanni's elegance, a quality composer Ludwig van Beethoven objected to because he believed evil should not be portrayed as charming. Yet this missing element is one that makes this opera so distinctive and eternally relevant.
Music director Antony Walker approached the score from the perspective of earlier music. He favored a very dry, often vibrato-less string sound. This need not preclude an atmospheric performance if applied with dramatic acuity. Unfortunately, many of Walker's tempi felt off — by turns too fast and too slow for the music to blossom.
Under these circumstances, the cast fared with varying degrees of success. Jennifer Holloway as Donna Elvira was the most impressive of the women, singing with fine line, intensity and ample intelligence. Caitlin Lynch was also a strong presence as Donna Anna, though her vibrato sometimes got in the way.
Simpson's Don Giovanni was certainly impressive at times, including the aria “Deh vieni alla finestra,” with its mandolin accompaniment well played onstage by Thomas Godfrey. I'd like to hear Simpson in the role in a different context. Wayne Tigges gave a particularly earthy slant in vocal timbre as well as deportment to Leporello, Don Giovanni's servant. His Catalogue Aria – cataloguing Don Giovanni's amorous conquests by country, ending with “but in Spain, 1,003” – concluded with coarse handling of Donna Elvira, to whom it is sung.
Sean Panikkar offered impressive sotto voce singing as Don Ottavio. Sari Gruber was variable as Zerlina, at her best performing with Joseph Barron's solid Masetto.
Hao Jiang Tian sang the Commendatore very well, and with endless reserves of dignity. When he returns from the dead in Act 2, he is supposed to be a stone statue of himself come to life to challenge Don Giovanni to repent. Unfortunately, the staging had him wander in casually in a robe. There was no basis to understand Don Giovanni's remark that taking the Commendatore's hand was frighteningly cold.
The orchestra performed well, although there were ensemble problems between it and the singers at the start of Act II. Glenn Lewis played the continuo part with sensitivity and imagination, but the electronic piano sound did not fit well with the strings.
It is likely that some, but certainly not all, of the problems experienced Friday night will ease during the run of performances, which continue through this coming weekend.
Pittsburgh Opera's production of “Don Giovanni” will be repeated at 7 p.m. Tuesday, 8 p.m. Friday and 2 p.m. Sunday at the Benedum Center, Downtown. Admission is $10 to $155.75. Details. 412-456-6666 or www.pittsburghopera.org
Mark Kanny, classical music critic for Trib Total Media, can be reached at 412-320-7877 or email@example.com.
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