BWW Reviews: HGO's DON GIOVANNI's Plot Drags Despite Tremendous Talents
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by David Clarke
Running opposite the bright and colorful SHOWBOAT in Houston Grand Opera's winter repertoire is an austere and dark production of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Lorenzo Da Ponte's DON GIOVANNI. This atmospheric and melodramatic opera presents the audience with the lecherous Don Giovanni, who has hired Leporello to keep a little black book of each of his numerous conquests and sexual assaults against the women of Europe. The show opens with Donna Anna escaping the man and crying out about his assault. Her father rushes to protect her and is unapologetically slain by Don Giovanni. Moving on, Don Giovanni stupefies the naïve Zerlina with his Casanova-like charms and lures her away from her husband Masetto. Meanwhile, Donna Anna, her fiancé, Don Ottavio, and Donna Elvira, an embittered woman that is one of Don Giovanni's conquests, all strive to bring his transgressive improprieties to public light.
Harry Silverstein is the artistic heir to the late director Göran Järvefelt, who originally directed this production. The direction by Göran Järvefelt and Harry Silverstein for the show keeps the plot moving along as quickly as the meticulous score and ambling, often repetitive libretto allow. After the soaring, dramatic overture and energetic opening scene, the plot slows to an almost complete halt as the audience repeatedly becomes witness to Don Giovanni as a sexually rampant monster of a rakish tramp. Things pick up slightly when Masetto becomes jealous of Don Giovanni's interactions with his wife, which leads to the lively and engaging wedding party scene that closes the first act. Likewise, the second act reintroduces themes made abundantly clear in the first act, such as Donna Elvira's willingness to be forgiving of Don Giovanni, which brings the plot to a slow crawl. It finally gains momentum when the statue of the Commendatore appears at Don Giovanni's home for dinner, leading to the opera's thrilling and altogether quick climax and resolution. However, both by Göran Järvefelt and Harry Silverstein have brought majestic, humorous life into the opera. They ensure that it is truly a drama giocoso that occasionally makes audiences roll with laughter, even in 2013.
Trevor Pinnock's conducting of the show is sprightly and enthusiastic. He is certainly passionate about the score, putting his whole body into his artful conducting. Anytime the story seemed to moving too slowly for me, I found my self consummately entertained and enthralled with his abundantly animated full-body style of conducting.
Adrian Eröd's Don Giovanni is not the debonair and ravishing Adonis that the character thinks he is. He is physically scrawny, but perfectly brings to life the suave, sensual charms that sway and woo his conquests with delicate and practiced ease. His unflinchingly unapologetic and altogether static characterization of Don Giovanni ensures that the climatic decision to never repent is believable, facing a sentence to hell without fear or atonement. His rich and melodic Baritone is melodious and well suited and adeptly exploited by the role.
As Leporello, Kyle Ketelsen is loyal to a flaw, earning guffaws and respect from the audience. His character is charming in his own way, and the audience laughs in agreement when he sings that he needs to find a better master in the finale. His powerful and pleasing baritone instrument pristinely brings to life every scene he is in and is most impressive when he appears to almost talk on pitch in the short and spectacularly staccato conversations with Don Giovanni.
Donna Anna, sung in lush, vivacious soprano by Rachel Willis-Sørensen is a showstopping revelation of artful operatic integrity. Every moment she is on stage she is captivating and alluring. Where other characters seem dully repetitious in their rehashed thematic utterings, Rachel Willis-Sørenson fills each note with such brilliant life that the audience never minds hearing her repeat the same idea. Moreover, she conveys Donna Anna's agony and despair with tangible realism, which makes her inadvertently humorous in the finale due to the opera's overarching melodramatic tone.
Veronika Dzhioeva's Donna Elvira is flamboyantly misguided, willing herself to forgive Don Giovanni if he'll settle with her. Mix in a delightful melodramatic flair, and she becomes a consistent and anticipated comic relief throughout the show. However, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Lorenzo Da Ponte really beat her character arc into the ground by constantly reminding the audience of her willingness to forgive. Regardless, her announcement of becoming a nun elicits great peals of laughter. Furthermore, her soprano voice sparkles and radiates in the role.
Joel Prieto's bright and illustrious tenor instrument is perfectly employed in his portrayal of Don Ottavio. He is beguiling but charmless as he constantly seeks to right the world for his betrothed without really ever stopping to consider her feelings. Joel Prieto boldly sings and brings insensitive arrogance to striking life in his portrayal of Don Ottavio.
Zerlina is brought to luminous life by Malin Chistensson's gleaming soprano instrument. She adds a naïve charisma to her portrayal.
Utilizing a vivid bass-baritone instrument, Michale Summel sings Masetto with an fascinating gusto. His character's jealousy is concretely defined.
Doing double duty by performing in both of the winter repertoire shows, Morris Robinson's alarming and visceral bass instrument is used to differing and powerful affect as the Commendatore. Here he is spartan and commanding, where his Joe in SHOW BOAT is delightfully warm and melodious.
Carl Friedrich Oberle's Set Design perfectly captures the grim tone of the show. The pieces are imposing and bleak. The neutral colors allow for fantastic lighting effects to be employed while appearing unnerving and almost hostile at all times.
Costume Design, also by Carl Friedrich Oberle, is pristinely period appropriate. The colors are dark and bold, and stand out against the muted light color of the sets. Don Giovanni is ingeniously clad in shoes with red heels, setting him visually apart from every other persona on stage.
Duane Schuler's lighting design deftly uses dazzling color palettes to enhance the set pieces and make the mood and tone of each scene visually apparent and appealing. Most interestingly he bathes the final scene in Don Giovanni's home with such a stark white light that everything seems dismal and vibrant at the same time, almost creating the simultaneous washout and brilliance of fluorescent lighting.
Unfortunately all of these astounding and pleasing elements combined together do not make DON GIOVANNI the most captivating and interesting opera that I have had the pleasure of seeing. The repetitiveness of the score and libretto cause parts of the plot to unnecessarily drag, but how does one even begin to try and tighten up a 225 year old piece without ruining your artistic integrity. Furthermore, I couldn't even begin to suggest cuts. Even with its tedious passages, the performance is made enjoyable by the remarkable talents showcased on the stage and in the orchestra pit.
Houston Grand Opera's DON GIOVANNI runs in the Brown Theatre of the Wortham Center through February 10, 2013. For more information and tickets, please visit http://www.houstongrandopera.org/ or call (713) 228 - 6737.Courtesy of Houston Grand Opera. All Photos by Felix Sanchez.