Don Giovanni, which opened the 2010 Fort Worth Opera Festival Saturday, is notoriously difficult to cast. Even major companies have trouble coming up with seven superlative singers who can negotiate some of Mozart’s most treacherous music. This was obviously not much of a problem for Darren Woods and the Fort Worth Opera.
Let’s start with the best of the best: Susanna Phillips, who sings Donna Anna. Praising her is really just a matter of jumping on an existing bandwagon. In 2005, she won four major international competitions, not the least of which was the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions. In April 2010, she was named the fifth recipient of the Beverly Sills Award. Her vocal technique is sheer perfection; so perfectly placed that even the quietest notes rang in the hall. Her coloratura work is impeccably clean, her intonation right on, and every note sounds effortless. Add acting chops that make this usually tiresome character sympathetic and believable, and you have a Donna Anna that would shine on any stage in the world.
Every bit as good is Michael Todd Simpson as the title character. He also has a long list of awards and prizes. Locally, Simpson was equally as impressive in another, but very different, Mozart role with the Dallas Opera this season when he played Guglielmo in Cosi fan tutte. His is a virile baritone, technically secure and flexible. As with Phillips, his voice is so beautifully focused that the quietest whispers project to the back of the hall. His Giovanni is a mischievous rogue who has gotten through life, thus far unscathed, with an overabundance of brazen sexual energy, tempered by a healthy dose of charm. You always believe him, even when caught red handed in a big fat lie.
Tim Corbeil, as Leperello, is an excellent foil to Simpson’s Giovanni. Their interaction is the comic highlight of the production. The role is on the low side for his voice so he was not able to project like Simpson, but his acting is as clear as anyone on the stage. His physical resemblance to Simpson makes the second act identity switch, which usually doesn’t work, effective to both the characters onstage and the audience.
Holli Harrison, who won the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions the year after Phillips, makes for a comically serious Donna Elvira. Her voice is not quite flexible enough for the few coloratura parts of the role, which leads to an occasional intonation problem, but her portrayal of this alternately wise and silly woman is dead on. She is able to get genuine laughs with little more than a glance. Harrison has an immense voice and is probably headed to Wagner’s realm as she gets older. She certainly has the skills for Mozart, though. She's a delightfully irritating Elvira.
Poor henpecked Don Ottavio has the thankless job of following Donna Anna around the stage for the entire opera. David Portillo flies in the face of tradition by actually showing some spunk and backbone. His lyric tenor is quite lovely and, when he keeps his chin down, is beautifully produced. Both of his arias are very clean and heartfelt. In his hands, the usually milquetoast Ottavio is a sympathetic character, and the audience empathized with his every move.
Ashley Kerr as Zerlina and Matthew Young's Masetto make a charming pair of bumpkins. Kerr lacks the sparkle that is needed to make her character come to life. There is little about her that would have attracted Don Giovanni, other than the fact that she is female (for the Don, that's enough). Young brings a world weariness, born of the acceptance of the reality of his situation, to his portrayal of a young man. When he goes after Don Giovanni with murderous intentions, you understand that he has finally snapped. Enough is enough, after all.
Matthew Trevino is impressive as the Commendatore, and also in his incarnation as a statue. The chorus has little to do with this opera, but they did what they had with aplomb. Chorus Master Stephen Dubberly gets the credit.
Conductor Joe Illick brings great drama to Mozart’s wondrous score. Hearing his interpretation, you suddenly remember that Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony followed by a mere 16 years. While the stage occasionally got away from him on Saturday, Illick’s revelatory Mozart was always looking forward.
The conversational nature of the recitatives are usually oversung, even at major houses, but they are flawless here. The audience's reaction to both the humor and the pathos proved that, when delivered as intended, recitatives cease to be mini-arias and become more like lines in a play. Emily Jarrell Urbanek's clever harpsichord underpinning added to this effect.
R. Keith Brumley’s unit set is supposed to portray a myriad of different settings, but is not very effective in any of them. If you don't already know where the action takes place, you'd be hard pressed to discern it. Perhaps the locations should be added to the supertitles. On the positive side, the stark black monoliths of the set allows Howard Tavi Kaplan’s opulent period costumes to pop.
Richard Kagey’s direction is uneven. There are some excellent directorial touches, such as Don Giovanni's defeat of the the Commendatore in their duel by cheating with a hidden knife. But the onstage non-playing musicians don't work whatsoever, and the descending into Hell bit is clunky. Admittedly, Mozart doesn’t help with his usual succession of arias, but too much of the opera is spent with very little happening on the stage. It's way too static. Fortunately, the vocals and acting from this talented cast carry the drama.
Most bizarre, the last scene of the opera is cut from this production. Even though it is a spliced-on coda to give the whole cast something to sing, it is still Mozart's ending, and should be played.
►The festival continues with Donizetti’s Elixir of Love (2 p.m. May 23, 8 p.m. May 28 and 8 p.m. June 5) and the world premiere of Jorge Martín’s Before Night Falls (8 p.m. May 29 and 2 p.m. June 6).