Dallas — Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni opened with great success on Friday at the Dallas Opera, in a marvelously cast production.
This opera requires a cast of equally talented superstars and doesn’t countenance a single weak link. Assembling such an ensemble is no mean feat, and there was some alarm when Mariusz Kwiecien, one of the great purveyors of the title role, had to cancel for opening night due to illness.
This situation ably demonstrated how casting is done to prepare for such a situation.
Cast in the supporting role of Masetto, as well a cover for Giovanni, baritone Craig Verm ably stepped into the title role. A cover for Masetto, Andre Courville, took over that role and the show went on. The audience applauded appreciatively when the substitutions were announced and enthusiastically at the end of the performance.
(Reportedly Kwiecien will return on Sunday, April 15, but such a demanding role requires a singer to be at 100 percent so it is impossible to predict.)
However, any lingering disappointment of not seeing Kwiecien, one of the great Don Giovannis of our time, soon faded as Verm showed his mastery of the role. Vocally, he was superb and his characterization accented Giovanni’s youthfulness and careless assessment of the damage he is causing in the lives of the thousands of women, and their families, that he so casually seduces.
In the setting of this production, originally done for Lyric Opera of Chicago in 2014, director Robert Falls and set designer Walt Spangler move the action into the dawn of the 20th century for no apparent reason other than to have fun with the mishmash of costumes (by Ana Kuzmanic) and to bring a motorcycle with a sidecar onto the stage. Fortunately, they don’t do any real damage to Mozart’s opera in the process.
The story is simple. Giovanni, a wealthy young and dissolute nobleman, travels the world seducing women and casting them aside. In the midst of his conquest of the feisty Donna Anna, her father appears and Giovanni promptly kills him. Later, Giovanni mocks a statue of the slain father and invites him to dinner. To Giovanni’s surprise, the statue appears and gives Giovanni one last chance to repent. Of course, he refuses and is sent to hell as punishment. (You can watch the Dallas Opera's hilarious Opera in Brief video here.)
As Leporello, Giovanni’s sidekick, Kyle Ketelsen is not the usual country bumpkin like Don Quixote’s Sancho Panza. He is a well-dressed and obviously an educated man-servant as befits the advancement in time. He is still just as badly treated by Giovanni’s imperious nature, but he is loyal as long as he is being paid. Vocally, his bass-baritone voice is different enough from Verm’s bright baritone that there is never any confusion as to who sings what.
Donna Elvira, the one woman who Giovanni supposedly married, is not like all of the others he seduced and left brokenhearted. She is in hot pursuit and makes his life miserable once she finds him. In this pivotal role, soprano Katie Van Kooten steals the show. Not only is this notoriously difficult role sung beautifully, but she brings Elvira to life more than in any other production that I have seen. She is Giovanni’s bête noir, tracking him down and interrupting all of his shenanigans with other females.
In the role of Donna Anna, Giovanni’s interrupted conquest that ended in the murder of her father, Laura Claycomb sings the role with her sure technique and lovey sound, but is vocally underpowered, especially in this robust cast. As her father, bass Morris Robinson was no match for Giovanni when he was alive, but later as the statue, is inescapable as he takes Giovanni to his eternal punishment.
As Anna’s perpetual fiancé, Don Ottavio, tenor David Portillo displays some remarkable breath control, carrying some of Mozart’s long phrases in one breath; most tenors have to breathe a couple of times in these moments. There isn’t much depth to his lyric tenor voice, but he uses it skillfully. As an actor, he is appropriately stiff.
As Zerlina, mezzo-soprano Virginie Verrez offers a complete vocal change from the light soubrette soprano we traditionally hear in this role. Her voice is nothing short of amazing and her portrayal of this peasant girl, being seduced by the handsome nobleman, shows spunk and how conflicted Giovanni’s ministrations can make a young girl.
Conductor Emmanuel Villaume is magnificent as he holds this opera together, even with two cast replacements. On opening night, his tempi were right on and the orchestra never once covered the stage. The orchestra sounded better than ever and it will be a thrill to hear them on April 22 as they play a concert on their own. Beethoven’s seventh symphony is on the program, as is the perennial audience favorite, Rachmaninoff’s third piano concerto concerto with the pianist Andrew von Oeyen. (That event is 2 p.m. Sunday, April 22 in the Winspear.)
When viewing Mozart’s opera, which is based on the legend of seducer Don Juan and has a libretto by Lorenzo da Ponte, it is impossible to ignore today’s news about politicians, celebrities and others called out for sexual misconduct. They have illicit affairs and are accused of assault and abuse of power, but too often in the past, have received the benefit of the doubt. Unfortunately, before the current #metoo movement, as with Mozart’s character, the prevailing thought was how could someone so respectable do such a thing? Giovanni does not escape his eventual punishment; his rank cannot save him. That is the lesson Mozart’s opera has to teach modern-day Giovannis. The final ensemble, roughly translated, assures us that sooner or later, every miscreant meets a miserable end.