Don Giovanni hits on Philadelphia

“Maybe choosing this particular lady wasn’t one of my best ideas”

Don Giovanni never reveals what is going on inside his head. As he tears his way through the opera bearing his name he never stops to explain himself. His only important solo moments are extremely brief: the Act 1 “champagne aria” and Act 2 serenade. He is the opera’s mysterious center, but he also can, sometimes, more or less disappear. Such is the situation in Opera Philadelphia’s current production, which boasts a fine musical performance with a few first-rate singers, a dubious production, and not very much Don.

Don Giovanni. Opera Philadelphia at the Academy of Music, 4/25/2014. Production by Nicholas Muni, conducted by George Manahan. With Elliot Madore (Don Giovanni), Joseph Barron (Leporello), Michelle Johnson (Donna Anna), Amanda Majeski (Donna Elvira), David Portillo (Don Ottavio), Ceceila Hall (Zerlina), Wes Mason (Masetto), Nicholas Masters (Commendatore)

Ottavio and Anna

Nicholas Muni’s production is period-minimalist, the set only a few sliding walls. He seems to want to keep the sight gags and comedy of a lighthearted work, but also wants to focus on Catholicism (there is also an anachronistic painting motif in the set, whose significance escapes me). The result is rather shallow, and doesn’t really do anything to place the Don himself. The production’s best moments are the most straightforward storytelling ones, some of which make the characters really come alive. I liked, for example, the point when Donna Anna rushes back to her father’s body as Don Ottavio promises to be her father too. Donna Elvira gets the best character arc, going from a trouser-wearing lady of vengeance to a Catholic redeemer. But the frequent brandishing of crosses feels heavy-handed at best, and much of the action is far too cluttered and has little relationship with the music (particularly the confusing staged overture).

Muni also supplies Don Giovanni with a number of nameless onstage conquests, many of whom are unlikely (an old woman, a nun, etc.). It is clearly meant to be funny. But by using women as mute props–and by suggesting we laugh at their unlikely ravishment–the production isn’t only telling us something about Don Giovanni. It’s also validating his view of the women as silent, disposable objects, and moreover it is built on the assumption that the women are themselves grotesque. This is unfortunate. Similarly, I am on the record as a major non-fan of suggestions that Donna Anna has a candle burning for Don Giovanni, and this production ticks that box too. A few of the production’s other failures are merely logistical: the Commendatore’s tomb appears in the cemetery scene and then stays there, making the singer’s entrance both redundant and not very terrifying. And one should not describe the descent down to hell, which is simply cheesy.

This production, however, is worth seeing for the three women alone, all of whom gave compelling performances. Amanda Majeski has just the right incisive precision for Donna Elvira, though her tightly focused soprano thinned out a bit at the top. She made “Mi tradì” a real story instead of an obstacle course. Michelle Johnson, as Donna Anna, has a glamorous, rich voice, and might be a star in the making. Her “Or sai chi l’onore” was big and exciting. She seems, however, more of a verista than a Mozartian at heart, and her phrasing was sometimes wanting in elegance, particularly in “Non mi dir,” which is not her home turf. And while I am not normally on Team Mezzo Zerlina, Ceceilia Hall was a model of graceful musicality, and her acting was sympathetic without being cloying or cutesy. She and Wes Mason’s likeable, well-sung Masetto were the only convincing couple onstage (OK, this might have been intentional).

Teh peasants

The men were not as strong. As Don Ottavio, David Portillo has a sweet tone, can vary the color nicely, and unwound some good long phrases, though he sounded more at home in “Dalla sua pace” than in “Il mio tesoro.” (I enjoyed getting both of these arias, though.) Joseph Barron was a competent but unmemorable Leporello, and the sight gags of large corsets (and a really tiny corset–which, um, yay? haha?) and a really massive list stole his big number.  Unfortunately I have left Elliot Madore’s Don Giovanni for last. While the character may be a mystery, Madore’s wide-stance, eyebrow-wiggling antics never transcended frat boy petulance or suggested anything more than a bro on a bender. His deepish baritone is fine for the role, though I wish “Deh vieni” had floated a bit more. While he was always energetic, the interpretation seemed haphazard–the production could have done a lot to help him out here.

The orchestra mostly sounded clean and clear. George Manahan’s tempos tended towards the leisurely and coordination wasn’t always perfect, but the finales were well-paced. More than in most operas, it was a real shame to lose the stage bands, who here were heard from the pit. Despite its dramatic faults this is a performance that is worth hearing.

Don Giovanni continues through May 4.
Photos copyright Kelly and Massa.


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