John Pascoe’s high-concept production of Don Giovanni opened the Dallas Opera season Friday. Inside the Winspear Opera House, tuxedos and evening gowns were sprinkled here and there as the audience eagerly assembled. Outside, in the brand new Annette Strauss Square, blue jeans and picnic baskets also assembled, just as eagerly, to watch a big-screen simulcast.
In some ways, the outside audience had the advantage. A fascinating intermission feature took them backstage and featured an interview with heartthrob Paulo Szot, who sang the leading role. In the actual opera, close-ups of the singers brought the action much closer than even the most high-priced seats inside. It was a brave and innovative move by the Dallas Opera.
Perhaps it would have been better attended if there wasn’t a threat of rain and, oh yeah, if the Rangers weren't getting themselves into the World Series.
No matter how it was viewed, it was a dynamic, dramatic and distinctive production. Pascoe did almost everything, including sets, costumes and direction. As far as sets and costumes, nothing was specific, but vaguely hinted at the director’s intention.
The sets had a surrealist basis with a soupçon of Federico Fellini. Everything was gigantic and consisted of discreet pieces; an immense set of doors, a pair of super-sized columns, a towering statue of Mary (Queen of Heaven), palm trees loomed over the action, and a giant’s graveyard appeared to have been tousled by an earthquake. The effect of all of this was to make the characters in the drama seem very small, as though the travails of all concerned were dwarfed by world itself.
The costumes were timeless but had a whiff of Spain's Franco era. Forcing the dancers to wear platform shoes was probably not the best idea, and Donna Elvira was dressed a little racy, considering that she was always accompanied by a bevy of nuns and priests. But overall, the costumes were effective and helped to develop the characters. Don Giovanni was alternately in the gold-braided uniform (due to his noble rank) and an open to the navel studded leather tunic. Donna Anna and Don Ottavio were always properly clad in black velvet. Zerlina and Marcello were in Franco-era street clothes, which made them part of the oppressed middle class; the equivalent of Mozart’s peasants.
Pascoe kept the stage filled with something interesting to see. In addition to the occasional stately processions of the ordained, atmospheric extras walked across the stage and posed in groups. All of this action proved to be a welcome change to what can be a highly static opera. Pascoe’s efforts to keep the action moving only faltered at the end of the second act when Mozart and his librettist, Lorenzo da Ponte, presented him with the impossible job of staging one aria after another.
As fight cooridnator, Bill Lengfelder gave Pascoe a measure of assistance, as did Jeff Davis’ lighting.
Don Giovanni presents several problems, but one stands out. Mozart asks for onstage instrumental ensembles, which are usually played in the orchestra with faux instrumentalists on the stage. This never works. Pascoe avoids this conundrum in the first act by not having anyone onstage pretending to be playing. However, he falters in the second act by not paying close attention to the score. The onstage extras pretending to play instruments do not match the instrumentation that is actually playing. The most visible is a flute player, with a shiny silver flute, even though there is no flute present. French horns and cellos are also missing onstage, while being heard in the orchestra.
Paulo Szot made an ideal Giovanni. After his Tony-winning, star turn as Emile de Becque in the acclaimed Broadway revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific, his portrayal of the famed seducer was eagerly anticipated. He did not disappoint. That Broadway experience gave him an ease on the stage and the ability to create a totally believable character. His operatic and vocal training gave him the chops to sing this demanding role without noticeable strain.
Mirco Palazzi, in his American debut as Giovanni’s much-abused sidekick, Leporello, was an inspired bit of casting. His much smaller stature is in contrast to the typical casting of this opera, in which directors attempt to match Leporello and Giovanni physically. In fact, in 1991, Peter Sellers cast twin brothers, Herbert and Eugene Perry in these roles. However, by casting the physically smaller Palazzi, Giovanni adds the title of bully to his other dastardly distinctions. Both men have superb voices for their respective roles, and Palazzi’s bass offered just the right contrast to Szot’s brighter baritone.
Jonathan Boyd did his best with the ungrateful role of Don Ottavio. His lyric tenor voice fits Mozart’s music and he was able to both float soft sounds and hold his own in the big ensembles. If he turned into a stand-and-sing opera actor in his second act aria (Il mio tesoro), the blame probably goes to Pascoe.
Morris Robinson has a voice as big as Pascoe’s outsized sets and was impressive as the Commendatore, when that character was alive. He was absolutely terrifying in that role when he was dead and turned into a stone statue. Ben Wager made a believable Masetto. No pushover, you really believed that he risked everything to stand up to the oppression of the royal class.
Of the women, Ailyn Perez’s Zerlina was the most impressive. No stock soubrette coquette, she was a real woman caught in an impossible situation. Her delivery of the first act aria (Batti, Batti), in which she begs her fiancée (Masetto) for a spanking for her misbehavior, was revelatory.
Claire Rutter’s Donna Anna was imperious while still being fragile. Vocally, she occasionally let the sound spread, which came out harsh, with a heavy vibrato. But when she backed off, it was lovely. Georgia Jarman’s Donna Elvira was perfect, both vocally and dramatically. She delivered some of the most consistently beautiful singing of the evening. Pascoe had her carrying her baby, fathered by Giovanni, throughout much of the opera. This only makes her more sympathetic, even though she hands it off to a nearby nun whenever it gets in the way of the action
Conductor Nicolae Moldoveanu was the hardest worker of the evening. Even the most insignificant chord received an emphatic gesture, complete with a dramatic toss of his curly mop. One would think that he was conducting Wagner instead of Mozart.
When his tempi were fast, they were so fast that the stage couldn’t keep up. When they were slow, they skirted with inertia. When his tempi resided in the Goldilocks zone, he infused an energy that greatly added to the dramatic impact of the entire production. The Dallas Opera Orchestra was in top form. Given the theme of this opera, you might even say there were hot.