W.A. Mozart’s Don Giovanni, premiered in 1787, is often considered his best opera, transforming the legend of Don Juan with music that is funny, tragic, frightening, and poignant at times. Yet stage productions of this story of seduction and heartbreak are often disappointing. Though Mozart’s music is filled with genius, the characters often fall flat: the stage stands still with hapless Don Ottavio, lecherous but uncouth Giovanni, and female characters stereotyped with fickleness, vengefulness, and hysteria.
For Opera Colorado’s production (seen March 30), director Kevin Newbury uses costumes and set pieces to update the story to a 1950s Pleasantville-type locale. The young cast assembled by Opera Colorado fully bought into Newbury’s concept. Instead of appearing in the usual cloak and hat, Don Giovanni channels James Dean in white tee, jeans, and leather jacket. Here, the female characters are somewhat complicit in their seductions. Donna Elvira, rather than the victimized (and sometimes pregnant) woman she is often portrayed as, is a prowling, jealous cougar who comes after Giovanni again and again, seeming to revel in their ‘hurts so good’ love. Donna Anna, meanwhile, is seen flirting, Carmen-esque with a cigarette, with Giovanni during the overture just before their interrupted lovemaking and her father’s murder by Giovanni. And young townie Zerlina seizes her chance at a better life with the nobleman without all that much resistance.
The neutral gray-black set with columns was artfully dressed up with excellent lighting effects by Robert Wierzel. Using stark whites, he created interior rooms on this blank canvas, eerie effects in the statuary/graveyard, and in the evening second act garden. This, along with the minimal set pieces (a jukebox, folding chairs, an period TV set and sofa), allowed Newbury and the actors to change scenes quickly. This continual flow certainly kept the drama moving along, though the sense of each place and the division between the peasant and noble classes faded. The vehicles used by the characters (an Austin Healy Sprite in fire-engine red and a rusty sidecar) also provided period charm and several laughs, but occasionally upstaged the music and dramatic moments they were meant to convey.
The production was certainly exciting and successful, and an upbeat closing to Opera Colorado’s shortened season. All of the principal singers had moments of humor, beautiful singing, and several of the ensemble musical numbers came together splendidly. Christopher Magiera’s Don Giovanni and Matthew Trevino’s Leporello made a classic comic duo, and delivered all of their many recitativo scenes with wonderful pacing and humor. Trevino hammed it up in the Act 2 serenading scene, and both were lively stage animals throughout the show. Christian Bowers’ Masetto and Maria Lindsey’s Zerlina made a charming couple, and Richard Wiegold’s Commendatore was appropriately magisterial and ominous. Three of the opera’s best-known arias appear nearly back-to-back in Act 2, and all three of the singers delivered standout performances in what can be a lull in the narrative action. As Don Ottavio, Jonathan Boyd sustained the notoriously difficult tessitura of “Il mio tesoro” with ease, and sang a thoughtful and gentle return of its initial melody. Melody Moore gave a fabulous interpretation of Donna Elvira’s “Mi tradi” with its long and emotionally-wrought opening accompanied recitative in her burnished, colorful voice. Ellie Dehn (Donna Anna) sang the coloratura in “Non mi dir” with clarity, and made full use of her lush color on the sustained lines of the aria amidst gently falling snow.
The orchestra, under the baton of Ari Pelto, was off-kilter at moments, but played much of Mozart’s glorious music with accuracy and passion, particularly the opera’s bombastic and poignant closing scenes. Katharine Kozak elegantly played the harpsichord, segueing seamlessly between musical numbers and recitative. Don Giovanni’s path from swinging bachelor to hell-bound rebel sometimes falls by the wayside in this rendition, but with the many buffo, laugh-out-loud moments in this production, the audience was certainly treated to a youthful, fun evening at the opera.
Don Giovanni continues April 2, 5, and 7 at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House.