Despite some flaws, Opera Theatre’s Don Giovani shines
By biconews On 15 Feb, 2000 At 05:00 AM | Categorized As Archives | With 0 Comments

By Geoffrey W. Melada

On Saturday, Feb. 5, the Opera Theater of Philadelphia returned to Haverford School’s Centennial Hall for an understated production of Mozart’s signature opera Don Giovanni. This dramma giocoso, or “gay drama,” in two acts premiered at National Theater, Prague, in October 1787 and made its triumphant American debut in May 1826 at Nev York City’s Park Theater. The second collaboration of Mozart and the librettist, da Ponte, Don Giovanni is generally accepted as Mozart’s greatest opera and is also one of the oldest operas in the permanent repertory of every major opera house.

Unconventional in its approach to costuming and set design, Opera Theater seems just as conservative as its larger, flashier rival, the Opera Company of Philadelphia, on the subject of repertoire (Opera Theater concludes its season in April with Verdi’s La Traviata; Opera Company is preparing, meanwhile, for Puccini’s Tosca in March).

The plot of Don Giovanni (or Don Juan) is legendary; a 17th century Spanish nobleman and seducer (par excellence) rejoices in a life of lechery, debauchery, and concupiscence until the father of one of his victims (Donna Anna) returns from the dead, in the form of a stone statue, to consign Don Giovanni to the fiery world below.

The overture opens with 30 measures of dramatic, portentous music, but Mozart follows this with lighter, more vivacious themes that reflect different facets of Don Giovanni’s personality and suggest some of his amorous adventures.

Mozart, ever sensitive, balances the light and comic strokes with dark colors of genuine pathos.

Recognizing that he had produced neither an opera huffa or an opera seria, but a skillful combination of both, Mozart applied to his new opera the designation of dramma giacoso.

The gaiety is certainly present: in the character of Leoporello (Brian Kontes), in the playful disputes between Masetto (Andrew Krikawa) and his fiancée (Megan Weston), in the swift and witty music Mozart wrote for these opera buffa characters. The Italian elegance of Don Giovanni’s serenade “Deh, vieni alla finestra” and Don Ottavio’s love songs is also in the opera buffa tradition.

But it is the tragic element, as opposed to the comic, that is stressed here, particularly in the characterization of Don Giovanni (played admirably by Carlos Conde). And it is with its tragedy that this opera reaches its highest plane of eloquence: with Donna Anna’s (Jane Ohmes) shattering grief in the opening scene or the violent music with which Don Giovanni meets his doom in the closing one.

The Opera Theater assembled a small but talented cast for this production, whose energetic and nuanced performances were especially apparent in the intimate venue of Centennial Hall. Particularly impressive were arias by members of the supporting cast: Jane Ohmes’ haunting Act II lament, “Non mi dir:” Brian Kontes’ hilarious enumeration of Don Giovanni’s conquests “Madamina! if catalogo ‘e questo” and Nick van Doesum’s thunderous summons as the deceased Commendatore.

I was not so impressed by the consciously minimalist set by Thaddeus Strassberger, whose static designs recalled images of Horizons’ visually unappealing 1998 and 1999 productions of Jesus Christ Superstar and Chess. I was intrigued by director Kurtz’s decision to place the opera in a non-specific temporal context, but the juxtaposition of contemporary fashion shapes with 17th century garb was often confusing and even distracting, as when Donna Anna appears as Trinity from The Matrix (in full pleather bodysuit).

Despite these flaws, the opera was beautifully sung and its irresistible characters, with all their forbidden yearnings, shone on the small Centennial stage. I look forward to the sumptuous Italian melodies of Verdi’s La Traviata when the Opera Theater performs the piece on April 26.

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