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Don Giovanni at the Michigan Opera Theatre


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#1 Ed Waffle

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Posted 04 May 2003 - 05:46 PM

"Don Giovanni" has a lot going against it these days. Many of the themes are familiar to the general public since movies and commercials have used its endless stream of exquisite melody. It is a repertory work that many opera fans have seen, the score is beautiful but treacherous in unskilled or inattentive hands and only a few of the roles can be properly interpreted with the "stand and deliver" acting style that opera singers often fall into.

The big problem with this opera, though, is Mozart and Da Ponte. Masterworks by geniuses have become fair game for directors who think they need to modernize them, either to make them palatable to today’s audience or to show how much on the cutting edge the director is. Or perhaps to show how much more about music the director knows than did Mozart, about text than did Da Ponte and about what works in the theater than both of them. The Don has recently been portrayed as a drug dealer in Spanish Harlem, a third world dictator, and a 1930s matinee idol. He has been a figment of Leporello’s imagination, has snorted cocaine and has had sex in the back of a wrecked automobile.

The Michigan Opera Theatre decided on a daring approach to this problematic work. In its production the Don is a dissolute 17th century Spanish nobleman, exactly what he was in the first production of the work. We were at both the Friday and Saturday evening performances to catch both casts. We saw and heard a production that did not attempt to impose itself between the work and the audience but let all its dark beauty, human pathos and heavenly music come through.

The humor was very well done—chiefly Leporello’s “Catalog” aria, in which he reads to list of Don Giovanni’s sexual conquests to Donna Elvira: “640 in Italy, 231 in Germany, 100 in France, 91 in Turkey, and in Spain, 1003”. Donna Elvira’s name is somewhere on that list. One often forgets that some in the audience are seeing the work for the first time—a lot of people were both shocked and amused by this gem.

Donna Anna is the daughter of the Commendatore. The Don rapes her, then kills her father in a sword battle when the he attempts to rescue her. It is the first among equals of the three soprano roles and has some ravishing music. There isn’t much dramatic range for Donna Anna, but the artist who takes her on must have a voice that is both beautiful and powerful. It can be a light role for singers who also do Turandot or Brunnhilde, a heavy role for singers who usually spin Handel’s tricky notes. It lies very well for the lyric voice with a touch of spinto metal. Mary Dunleavy, the “A” cast Donna Anna, is a singer worth going out of your way to hear..

Donna Elvira is a different story. Like Donna Anna a noblewoman, she is also obsessed with the Don, having followed him across Spain after she was seduced and abandoned. She swings from wanting to see him dead to a willingness to forgive him. This is a wonderful role, full of hit parade melodies. Dramatically she must show strength of character, vulnerability and obsessive love—sometimes within one aria. Her first aria establishes her character. The singer portraying Donna Elvira needs a voice that can be edgy without being strident. Pamela Armstrong, the “A” cast Elvira was superb. She does a lot of Mozart and does it very well.

Zerlina, the peasant girl that almost falls into Don Giovanni’s clutches on her wedding day, is a typical “ina” role—a soubrette soprano with high notes to burn. One of Zerlina’s big arias, in this era of supertitles, is one area where updating is necessary. It is, of course, “Batti, batti” sung to her new husband Masetto, and, in English, begins “Beat me, beat me”. Translating it to “Torment me” in the supertitles does not do any great harm to Da Ponte’s prose (supertitles are summaries) and doesn’t distract the audience.

Everyone loves Leporello. He is the original “take this job and shove it” guy, is a counterbalance to the evil dissipation of the Don and forms the third part of the lower class triplet of the opera. A talented clown with a ringing bass/baritone can do wonders with this role.

Don Giovanni himself is a monster and a monster of a role. He constantly makes it clear that he is driven by his need to conquer, subdue and denigrate women. He a great representation of sheer id—but with the combination of sublime music and constant, manic energy, one can also see how he can be attractive to Donna Elvira and Zerlina.

There were a few bobbles in the pit and some disagreement on tempo between stage and conductor--especially in Elvira’s showpiece “Mi Tradi”, which stopped the show on Saturday. The winds, particularly the oboes and bassoons were marvelous.

It is hard to go wrong with Mozart and Da Ponte—almost impossible if the director follows the text and stage directions and the singers, orchestra and conductor know what they are doing.

#2 dirac

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Posted 07 May 2003 - 02:08 PM

Thank you for the review. This opera really does have everything – great libretto, great score, great story, strong characters, and the simple pleasure of beautiful, well known melodies --the works.


I remember hearing Leporello's aria for the first time in high school and wondering why there was so much more action in Spain.

#3 Hans

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Posted 07 May 2003 - 03:21 PM

Because Spain is where Don Giovanni lives, isn't it?

Ed, it sounds like opera has the same problem with "updated" productions that ballet does. Seems to go across all the live art forms.

#4 dirac

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Posted 07 May 2003 - 03:59 PM

I didn't find that out till later, Hans. :mad:

You know, it's true that "updating" can go too far, but it's not a bad thing in principle. If we saw nothing but traditional productions, however well done, we'd probably be complaining of monotony. Even if a New Look doesn't work, it can be interesting, and show you some aspect of the work you might have overlooked. What aspects of the work translate well to another time? Which ones don't, and why? These can be fruitful questions. It's not always the director trying to show off, although that is all too frequently the case.

And if the production is beyond outrageous, you can always laugh, through your tears. :)

#5 Hans

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Posted 08 May 2003 - 07:14 AM

Actually, dirac, I had a thought very similar to that one just after I posted. Yes, it can be interesting to play around with details like time and place--it can even show us new things about the work or help it seem more relevant to newcomers. It's when they twist the work itself around that causes problems (as I'm sure you already know :mad:). I like some unusual productions--I saw a Rigoletto set in the thirties once that worked pretty well, and I've wanted to see DTH's "Creole Giselle" for a long time now. It helps to have a director who knows how far is too far to stretch the classics.

#6 Mary J

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Posted 09 May 2003 - 07:56 AM

English National Opera did the Rigoletto in New York's Little Italy in the 1930's - Jonathan Miller was the director - and I thought it did work, mainly because all the necessary cultural and societal underpinnings of the opera were there, especially the nature of revenge and the power of a father's curse. And, if I remember correctly, Andrew Porter did the translation and was able to incorporate some surprisingly accurate slang. But it was not a "gimmick" - the relationships and tensions were consistent with both the libretto and the setting.

#7 Ed Waffle

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Posted 09 May 2003 - 08:20 PM

Originally posted by dirac
 
You know, it's true that "updating" can go too far, but it's not a bad thing in principle.  


Updating is the least of the problems. Actually it isn't a problem at all. Mary J points out "Rigoletto" in Little Italy, which was a great production of one of Verdi's darkest and most terrifying operas.

Andrew Porter translated the "Ring" for the English National Opera and did a wonderful job. The ENO and St. Louis Opera are the two companies that still do opera in translation of English and generally use his work.

The "Cosi fan tutti" set in a diner on the New York State Thruway was also effective.

Some of the best type of "updating" happens when the work is set in the time and place that it was composed, instead of the time and place in the libretto. It often is very effective. Verdi and his librettist didn't know much about (for example) ancient Babylon, but they were very much a part of--or at least affected by--the nationalist revolution in Italy in the middle of the 19th century. So setting "Nabucco", a work which describes how a subjagated people is able to free itself, in Italy at the time of its composition does no violence to the opera.

The problems arise when the production ignores or contradicts the music and the text of the drama and when it forces the singers to work around instead of with the direction they are given and the space in which they perform.


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