Santa Fe, N.M. — Mozart called his opera Don Giovanni a dramma giocoso (playful drama), although he originally wanted to call it an opera buffo (comic opera). While there are comic moments, and certainty some playful ones, neither term precisely describes an opera that opens up with a murder and ends with a descent into the flames of hell.
The librettist, Lorenzo da Ponte, had lots of historical material as a starting point. The character of the licensor’s nobleman, sometimes even a god, runs through literature going back to the Greeks. But the closest tale to da Ponte’s time came in a play by Terso de Mollia (a nome de plume for Spanish monk Gabriel Téllez) His play, in turn, was loosely based on a real person, the Conda de Villamedia. Molino christened him Don Juan, or Giovanni, in Italian.
All this background is necessary because life is very different in 2016 than it was in 1787, or even in 1963 when the opera was first produced at the Santa Fe Opera. Don Giovanni is about a serial sexual predator, and there is nothing giocoso, certainly not buffo, about that. In fact, the plot is right out of today’s headlines as multiple women come forward with charges of rape and the villain is only finally trapped by his own hubristic confidence that he will always be able to “get away with it”; he always has in the past. And besides, they all said “yes,” or at least not a very believable “no” as far as he is concerned. Thus, the necessity of our modern day “no means no” campaign.
None of this, of course, detracts from the opera, which remains one of Mozart’s greatest efforts. It holds steady at tenth position on Operabase’s list of the most performed operas. Admiring composers and critics, ever since, uniformly refer to it as a perfect composition, without flaw, a work of divinity and so on.
The Santa Fe production boasts a spectacular cast: vocally impressive and believable as the characters they portray. Like all Mozart operas, this is an ensemble piece, so the singers need to be matched to each other as well as to their roles. Santa Fe has assembled just such a cast.
In fact, the takeaway of the performance is the direction of Ron Daniels, who actually creates real people on the stage instead of singers milling around.
He mostly accomplishes this in his staging of the superbly performed recitatives. These are really patches of dialogue set to music and it is very difficult to make sound natural, like the conversation and interaction that would be spoken if it were a play. Mozart dictates the pitches and approximate rhythms but it is up to the actors to bring what is on the page to life. All too frequently, wooden and stiff recitatives seem to drone on forever. For recitatives to turn into snappy dialogue, all singers must be on board. Thanks to Daniels, this performance sets the gold standard.
The role of Don Giovanni is almost all recitativo accompagnato (accompanied by the full orchestra). The two arias that he has sound tacked on, because they were. Mozart added them to placate his first Giovanni, Luigi Bassi, who complained bitterly that the leading character didn’t have a major show-off aria that could be successfully extracted for recital use. Mozart added the beautiful serenade, Deh vieni alla finestra, accompanied by a mandolin and a scattering off pizzicato chords in the strings.
As Giovanni, Daniel Okulitch uses his terrific baritone voice as his seduction tool—the way a high school senior might use a corvette. He struts his stuff with the brash self-assuredness of someone who knows that he gets any lady that strikes his fancy and that he can slip out of any situation that might result from his actions. Born into the privileged class, he apparently has plenty of family money that frees him to wander around hunting for the next conquest.
For Okulitch’s Giovanni, it is the challenge of the chase and the excitement of the escape as much as the gratification in-between. A scene with a bathtub allows us to see the impressive physique, from the waist up, which caused his conquests to become part of an unwelcome clique.
Leporello is the only truly giacoso character in the opera. The role of the much-put-upon and abused sidekick turns up frequently. Another fine baritone, Kyle Ketelsen, plays him with an accepting sigh. This is his lot in life. He has excellent comic timing and it earns him genuine laughs from the audience. Also, he occasionally underplays what others in the role would exaggerate, making it much funnier. Watching his performance, we are reminded that untitled folk like Leporello didn’t stand a chance in the 1700s unless they found themselves a patron, a master, to serve 24/7. The knight’s squire is an example, and he had to accept how he was treated no matter the level of abuse.
But this Lepporello isn’t saddling a knight’s gilded horse or polishing armor. No, his job to follow along behind Giovanni, as best he can, to try to tidy up the wreckage his master leaves behind. Ketelson plays Leporello, with an “over it” and “what next” attitude. He is keeping a catalog of all of Giovanni’s conquests, just for himself, since it is the only way to measure the passing of time and servitude. But he has started to recite the endless list to women that Giovanni is eyeing as a warning.
These recitations from the list are usually played with a vicarious glee. Ketelson’s Leporello is anything but gleeful when reciting the depressing list. At the end of the opera, his only thought is about finding another master, hopefully one who isn’t as difficult to serve.
At the beginning of the opera, we see Giovanni fleeing a nobleman’s house. He is half dressed and his conquest Donna Anna barely puts together herself, in hot pursuit. Giovanni compounds his troubles by killing her father, the Commendatore, who apparently caught them in flagrante.
Soloman Howard brings great dignity, and an impressively huge and deep bass voice. He turns his brief appearance here, and at the end of the opera as the accusing ghost delivering Giovanni his well earned trip to hell, into a memorable role.
Big voices must run in the family because Soprano Leah Crocetto, as his daughter Donna Anna, also has an enormous voice, but more like a French horn that a trumpet. She certainly has the vocal chops to get through this taxing role in which she is upset most of the time.
The closest target for Anna to unload her wrath on is her long-suffering fiancée Don Ottavio, sung by tenor Edgaras Montvidas. This is a thankless role made worse by its difficulty. Montvidas has a lovely lyric tenor voice that serves him well in Mozart. He is especially noteworthy in his aria, Il mio tesaro, as he flashed through all of the florid passages, and mostly in one breath.
Donna Elvira, sung by Keri Alkema, is one of Giovanni’s leftovers that has chosen to pursue him to the ends of the earth and time, if necessary. She is a truly pitiful sight and representative of the thousands, according to Lepporello's catalog, of deserted women, who believed Giovanni’s sweet purring words, only to find him gone in the morning. She also has a big voice, but her sound is different enough from Crocetto’s to allow the audience to easily pick her out in the ensembles.
Giovanni and Leporello stumble across a peasant wedding and the bride to be, Zerlina, is a tempting morsel, too tempting to ignore. In the role, Rhian Lois has all the perkiness required and a sweet light soprano voice. This role is almost always sung by a soubrette and Lois is a fine one. The problem, and not just with this particular production, is that this light kind of voice suffers in comparison to the other two monster-voiced soprani. A soubrette with a little more oomph would have had an easier time fitting into this cast.
Her husband-to-be, Masetto, is sung by baritone Jarett Ott with some exasperation at his intended’s flightily ways. But, now she has really done it. Running off for a dalliance with a stranger, at her wedding party, is too much for him to take. Of course, he relents and all ends well for them.
Riccardo Hernandez’s set, if you want to call it that, is a gigantic sculpture of a head that rises up at the beginning and returns from whence it came at the end. In the meanwhile, diverse scenes and objects are projected onto it. Occasionally, parts of it appeared to be transparent and it fills with red smoke, supposedly from hell, at the end.
Since it completely fills the stage, no small feat, much is expected of it. Would it open as the door to hell and devils crawl out to capture Giovanni? Would the Commandatore’s final lines appear to come out of its mouth? Alas, we waited in vain for it do something—anything. Very odd.
The sides of the stage are lined with doors that occasionally sport projections of women in various stages of something (we assume sexual pleasure) but we don’t see enough of them to be certain.
The costumes, by Emily Rebholz, are reminiscent of the late 1800s, although Giovanni and Leporello are more swashbucklingly clad. The women wear enormous bustles, which does nothing to explain their character, are not very flattering and must be a nuisance to wear.
John Nelson conducted the opera with keen attention to the details of Mozart’s wondrous orchestration. In an era of lightning-fast Mozart performances, Nelson takes a less manic pace. His tempi are carefully chosen and in the Goldilocks range—not too fast and not too slow. He balances the orchestra within itself, bringing out this or that line, and then balances again with the stage. The result is equalized—an effect you can get in a recording session, but rarely in a live performance.
If you attend one of the remaining performances, you will get to hear a dream cast, wonderfully conducted and with realistic and believable direction. This combination rarely happens.
Just disregard the head.
» More reviews from the 2016 Santa Fe Opera season:
- Mozart's Don Giovanni
- Puccini's La Fanciulla del West
- Barber's Vanessa
- Gounod's Roméo et Juliette
- R. Strauss' Capriccio