Monday, May 23, 2011

Persecution and Assassination

Andrew Gangestad as the Commendatore
and Elliot Madore as Don Giovanni
Copyright: Ken Howard, 2011
Who: Opera Theatre of St. Louis
What: Don Giovanni
Where: Loretto-Hilton Center
When: May 21 through June 25, 2011

Opera Theatre’s Don Giovanni is oddly schizoid. Conductor Jane Glover and the singers are doing solid Mozart/Da Ponte but stage directors James Robinson and Michael Shell appear to be doing Marat/Sade, repeatedly undercutting the music and text with contradictory or just plain distracting stage business. You know it's going to be a bumpy night when the opera opens with Leporello pretending to urinate on a wall.

This is hardly a problem unique to Opera Theatre. I opened the Sunday New York Times the day after OTSL’s opening night to find an article by Charles Isherwood critiquing Robert Lepage’s Ring cycle at the Met in ways that closely mirrored my thoughts on what I had seen and heard the night before. When he writes that “the first responsibility of the director should be serving the musical drama,” and describes a production that “seems to be perpetually in competition for our attention with the opera itself,” he could just as easily be commenting on Mozart in St. Louis as on Wagner in New York.

The central problem with this Don Giovanni can, I think, be found in the brief directors’ note in the program. They characters who are seduced and/or abused by the Don “are not happy people to begin with.” They’re “self-deceiving, insomniac, and conflicted, and none of them seems to know how to escape from a tortured orbit around Giovanni.” Their Don may be a sociopath but instead of leaving a trail of innocent victims he’s dogged by broken enablers.

Nor is he the heedless libertine the libretto suggests. This Don Giovanni is “aware of his own vulnerability, his fleeting youth. Fear has set in.” For those who don’t read program notes, Mr. Robinson and Mr. Shell underline the point by having elderly ghosts confront Giovanni throughout the opera. In the end it’s the ghostly geezers who drag him to Hell, not the libretto’s chorus of demons.

The production, in short, injects a note of contemporary psychobabble that is at odds with both the music and libretto and serves neither of them well.

Still, to quote Mr. Isherwood again, a “pre-eminent truth about opera-going is that the quality of the music-making will always remain the matter of paramount importance…a great night at the opera relies infinitely more on the singers and the players in the pit than on any conceptual innovations from the production’s director.” The fine work by Ms. Glover, the St. Louis Symphony musicians, and the strong singers on stage is, ultimately, what rescues this production from the doldrums to which the stage direction seems determined to consign it. I’d like to think they were the motivation for the standing ovation the show received on opening night. They certainly deserved it.

Baritone Elliot Madore is a compelling and powerful Don Giovanni. He has clearly been directed to chew the scenery – almost literally so, in the final banquet scene – but he does it well. Baritone Levi Hernandez makes an impressive OTSL debut as the Don’s wily and put-upon servant Leporello, and his crystal-clear diction is a real plus in the patter songs.

As Don Ottavio, David Portillo was a great favorite of the opening night crowd, and with good reason. His “Il mio tesoro” allowed him to show off a fine, clear tenor to great advantage. Soprano Maria Kanyova, who gave us top-notch performances in Marriage of Figaro last year and Nixon in China back in 2004, is in fine form again as the grieving Donna Anna. It’s a beautifully sung performance – and even better if you close your eyes and ignore the ludicrous costumes and unflattering hairstyle with which she has been saddled.

Mezzo Kathryn Leemhuis, whom I described as a “lively and provocative Flora” in 2007’s La Traviata, brings a fine sense of comedy and vitality to the role of the peasant Zerlina. Bass Bradley Smoak, who was such a hit as the comically inebriated Antonio in last season’s Marriage of Figaro, once again demonstrates his humor chops as Zerlina’s befuddled (and, as it happens, intoxicated) bridegroom Masetto.

As the chronically indecisive Donna Elivra, soprano Kishani Jayasinghe falls a bit short of the vocal power and clarity of her fellow cast members, but her acting is convincing and in the end she won me over. Bass Andrew Gangestad cuts an imposing figure as the Commendatore, both in life and death.

Chistopher Akerlind is credited as the lighting designer but, as my fellow critic Gerry Kowarsky noted during intermission, he might more accurately be described as the “darkness designer”, given how dim the stage is. I understand that this is part of The Concept, but it does make it difficult to see what the actors are doing often enough to be distracting.

Equally distracting are Bruno Schwengel’s sets and costumes. The former feature fake three-dimensional scenes on painted flats with plenty of forced perspective – presumably to underscore the falseness of the Don’s world. The latter seem to place the action of the opera in both the 18th and 21st centuries simultaneously, which only further muddles the character relationships. Still, it’s all executed with great skill. It’s the overall concept that’s the problem.

That’s not to say that all of Mr. Robinson and Mr. Shell’s ideas were bad. Using on-stage musicians for the first act “battle of the bands” sequence is a nice touch, for example, and the Don’s final descent into Hell was appropriately dramatic. Playing some scenes “in one” in front of midnight blue curtain to cover lengthy scene changes was also a good choice – or would have been if those changes hadn’t been so protracted and so noisy.

I won’t say this Don Giovanni isn’t worth seeing because it’s certainly worth hearing, and if you love this opera you’ll find considerable musical pleasure in this production. I just wish directors would have a bit more faith in their material and their audiences. Honestly, we don’t need to be distracted by non-stop stage business. We understand that a Mozart opera has different ground rules than a Rogers and Hammerstein musical. Just trust us, OK?

Opera Theatre’s Don Giovanni continues at the Loretto-Hilton Center on the Webster University campus through June 25th. For more information, you may visit or call 314-961-0644.

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