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Mariusz Kwiecien, the young Polish baritone, has been making a splash as Don Giovanni in opera houses around the world, and last night he opened in Seattle Opera's production, leading the Gold Cast. This afternoon I saw the Silver Cast, headed by former Seattle Opera Young Artist Morgan Smith, who impressed me as Peter Niles in Mourning Becomes Electra. I have to admit, my plan was to watch Act I, my nomination for the most perfect act in opera, and then to go to Stars on Ice across Seattle Center at Key Arena, but it was Smith's performance that made me stay until the end.

The director was Chris Alexander, whose direction I find often crosses the line to silliness, but I'm in the minority on that verdict. He highlighted the comedy, but watching the performance was like watching a production of Shakespeare, which Jenkins, in the post-performance Q&A, said was the point, emphasizing that Don Giovanni is a drama giocosa, or tragi-comedy. By letting the comedy breathe through, the tragedy, the irony, and the human foibles shone through clearly.

Jenkins also spoke about how the character of Donna Elvira was written as a comic figure, and in the 18th century, Donna Elvira would have been received this way, whereas in the 20th and 21st centuries, we have more sympathy for her character; in his essay in the program on the eight characters, he makes this point as well. It was counter-intuitive for me that treating Donna Elvira comically in the beginning made her more sympathetic as the story went on. Sure, she was loud and passionate and a bit over-the-top, but she didn't start sympathetically, only to turn shrewish. She was a bit like the brassy woman that you come to like as the story unfolds. At the end of the opera, wearing Don Giovanni's coat that Leporello wore to distract her, she expects to enter a convent, where she'll be a bride of Don Giovanni until the end, trying to save him from hell through her prayers.

In another unusual turn, Massetto isn't the lower class counterpart to Don Ottavio: as Jenkins explains in his essay, Massetto's behavior is revolutionary for his class in his willingness to fight and talk back. Not as clever as Figaro, nor a dirty fighter like Don Giovanni, he doesn't win, but he gets in Don Giovanni's face even more so than Leporello, and the production carries out this idea. Baritone Kevin Burdette, a very funny Mustafa in the Silver Cast of L'Italiana in Algieri, proved to be a terrific actor once again, playing the straight man; without his gifts, I don't think Jenkins' idea of Massetto would have come across. Usually in the Zerlina/Massetto scenes, Massetto is played as a big doofus, and as soon as they start to sing, I start to hear "Pa, pa, pa, papapapagno..." and start thinking about work or my laundry. Burdette, as a bit drunk and jealous bridegroom, was not easily assuaged, and in his long reaction to Zerlina's excuses and apologies was slow and churning -- very disciplined acting. She realizes that to ask him not to punish her is to escalate his anger, while to say "beat me, beat me" diffuses his rage, and turns his thoughts to make-up sex. He's not a pushover, and she's going to have to keep on her toes.

Don Ottavio really does draw the short straw, and it is entirely his own doing. Always a beat behind, sounding stilted when he tries to fulfill the manly role, he cannot be what Donna Anna wants. In the post-performance Q&A, there was a discussion about whether Donna Anna makes it into Don Giovanni's book. I don't think she would, because I don't think it's Don Giovanni himself she wants; I think that she's half asleep when he shows up at her window, and he's fulfilling her fantasy of what she wants Don Ottavio to be. Don Giovanni hasn't seduced her, really; she's seduced herself. It isn't until he speaks that she's jolted out of it, and like any good girl not facing her bad girl side, she has to become holier than thou. I didn't believe the stage business with Donna Anna seducing the Don before The Commendatore walks in: I think she's fighting Don Giovanni, but, like Donna Elvira, not giving him the final blow, because there's part of her that wants someone like him, and she's forced to face her disappointment that Don Ottavio will never be more than a stiff.

One of the most effective choices was to have Don Giovanni hire a mandolinist to accompany his Act II serenade. Usually the Don accompanies himself, which means he's tied to a prop, and I've seen this scene come across as smug. By freeing him from the instrument, and sending Don Giovanni downstage and facing the audience, not the window of his target, it turned the aria into something more complex: Smith sang it in an almost sincere, innocent way. As Kwiecien said in an interview in the program, "To me, it's natural to play him as a gentleman...How else could he attrract women of all ages and classes?...The most successful way to attract women is with delicacy and a gentle touch--although in Don Giovanni's case there is a dangerous poison underlying this sweetness." For a single instant, that dangerous poison was that Don Giovanni actually believed his own hype, that he was a good guy in love with each and sharing the wealth.

The set was another architectural set, looking like a dark stone wall exterior of a city palace, with numerous doors that functioned alternately as the interior of a restaurant, an elevator, regular doors, etc. and a multifunctional second floor balcony. The only other set pieces were a banquet table that rose from a trap, a bench that slid across to center stage as needed, a cafe table and chair set that set the scene for Leporello's "Catalogue Aria," and a motorcycle on which Don Giovanni makes his getaway after killing the Commendatore. The costumes were multi-period; each of the women and most of the men in different a different period of 20th century garb, except for the costume ball, with Don Giovanni crossing periods, to represent timelessness. It confused me a bit at first, but ultimately, I got it. And the conclusion seemed to be that Hell is a disco.

In the Q&A Jenkins said that one of his requirements was that the scenes change rapidly, with no pauses between them, which is the way it would have been staged in the 18th century. He said the only alternative is to have a revolving stage, which is moot at McCaw Hall, which doesn't have the revolving platter, although he did say he wouldn't have made that choice. (I saw that work very, very well in Tallinn.) This production moved from scene to scene without pause, and the dramatic tension was maintained beautifully.

In another quote Kwiecien said, "I don't like Don Giovanni sung by sixty-year-old men...A woman would not be attracted to a man forty years older than she is, and I think the first thing that attracted women to the Don was that he looked beautiful, like an older Cherubino." (I think Mr. Kwiecien has a little more to learn about women; when I was 14 I had a massive crush on Cesare Siepi, as Ramfis, the reactionary authority figure, of all things.) In casting this production, Jenkins chose two young men. I haven't seen Kwiecien yet, only photos, which are quite promising, but Smith is, shall we say, a hottie, and a very convincing Don. He has a terrific voice, with a lot of authority, and not just because of his voice type. He sang with a lot of ease, and he moved very, very well. (Like Netrebko in I Puritani, he had a spectacular jump, in his case, onto the banquet table.)

I don't know how Jenkins managed to sign Vladimir Ognovenko to make his debut as The Commendatore, as his normal repertoire is a list of leading roles and he's a "People's Artist of Russia," but what a performance, shaking the rafters in his final scene. He has the type of voice that you can feel through the soles of your feet. Dana Beth Miller was a volatile, passionate Donna Elvira, with a freshness in her voice. She was strong, with the exception of the end of her Act II aria "Mi tradi quell'alma ingrata," which was a bit rough, although the conductor, Andreas Mitisek, after a rather slow "Il mio tesoro," took the aria at NYCB pace. Frazita Whelan was more technically sound end-to-end, and while her opening was on the dull side, she gained dramatic intensity toward the end. Heather Parker, as Zerlina, has a lovely soubrette soprano voice, and apart from moving around in a mincing manner, which I suspect was at Alexander's direction, the shimmy being one of his favorite moves, she was a convincing actress.

Brian Kontes' Leporello was fine, but I prefer more hefty voices in the role. Patrick Miller showed a lot of promise in Act I, with a bright tenor, but in "Dalla sua pace" he and the conductor fought over tempo. It wasn't until "Il mio tesoro" that I realized that his timing was inconsistent. His second verse was stronger than his first in phrasing and breath control, but in the overall performance, he started out stronger than he finished.

There was much to think about in this production, and I look forward to seeing Kwiecien and the rest of the Gold Cast on Wednesday, traffic willing.

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Sounds like a dramatically well-thought-out performance. It's rare when you hear a director discussing his intensions after a performance and are able to say: "Yes, that's what I actually saw on the stage!" Good for Jenkins!

Rapid scene changes, interesting characters cast and directed in a manner appropriate to the role, even commonsense devices like Don Giovanni hiring someone to play the mandolin to enhance his courting: all sound fine to me. I'd also enjoy the chance to see how the Massetto and Ottavio interpretations worked -- and Elvira's taking Don Giovanni's coat as a sort of combination memento amore and memento peccato. The two men -- but not Donna Elvira -- are always the weak links in the story to me.


And the conclusion seemed to be that Hell is a disco.
Directors all over the western world have been having the same idea, for quite a long time. :(
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