Mozart would have been grinning at this youthful production of his tried-and-true opera that reached out to a new younger and diverse audience Friday night, March 17th. Washington National Opera’s Don Giovanni was Mozart as he wanted to be known: someone who delivered stories-in-song with popular appeal.
The Kennedy Center Opera House was packed for the one-night-only event, cutting the mean age of WNO’s audience base in half. Artistic Director Francesca Zambello directed, not with gimmicks or by forcing a clever update but presenting a lean, semi-staged version that put the focus on the singing and Washington’s “home team,” as she wrote in her notes, the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist singers.
The production served not only as community outreach but as a most important bridge between conservatory training of a selected and talented pool of young singers and their future careers. (Anyone who was there will be able to boast now, “I saw them when…”) Where else would singers-in-training get to sing on a major stage in front of a full orchestra conducted impressively by Michael Christie?
Christie had proved his fine abilities with the WNO orchestra, recently conducting two modern operas in rep, Dead Man Walking and Terry Blanchard’s Champion. Here he delivers the wonderful textures and turns of Mozart from the first foreboding chords of the overture and introduces the gorgeous experience of hearing live orchestral music in isolation before transporting us all to the land of imagination and a grand story.
Mozart’s Don Giovanni is an opera not without its challenges. At its center is a self-proclaimed womanizer. In the first scene, Zambello makes clear that the main character both rapes a woman and kills her father. The killing is irrefutable, but I might argue that pushing the “rape” issue makes it hard to take Giovanni for the next three plus hours. There are two other women in the opera, high and low born, who follow him around, not to mention his servant’s count of as many as 1,003 more women he’s seduced in Spain alone. He’s got to have something going for him, at least, we must agree, a kind of rock-star appeal.
Luckily, Michael Adams does. He cuts a handsome figure on stage, fore and aft, and can flourish both with sword and be-ruffled arm gestures. He tends to lock into that one cocked leg leading man “thing,” but in part that was due to the minimal staging. The focus was on the singing, and he shows dexterity and diction with the tricky fast-paced singing with his servant as well as an ability to deliver the control in a sweet seduction of a peasant girl like ‘Là ci darem la mano,” He was always able to sing above the orchestra, cutting through and stating “Listen to me,” the mark of a legit opera soloist.
Zambello wisely blocked the entire cast to sing downstage and mostly center, allowing the young singers to deliver an acoustic sound to fill the vast WNO house. This gave them the advantage so that, as their voices continue to develop in size necessary for a major operatic career, they don’t strain. It also allowed us in the audience to put our attention on the singing.
To my mind, however, we did not get to see the physical training this generation of singers (and especially in the Domingo-Cafritz program) receives to be able to move nimbly and sing from just about any position. Nor did we see Zambello’s signature style as a stage director. She is a master of directing singer-actors to make nuanced choices moment-to-moment.
Andrew Bogard defied the limitations of the production’s staging style and thereby won the hearts of this audience, many of whom clearly reveled in the physical modernity of his characterization. Mozart has so often given us comic characters who steal the show by their popular appeal. (Think of Papageno in The Magic Flute.)
Bogard plays Leporello, Giovanni’s side-kick (more often kicked) servant, bounding around the stage and clowning, masterful in his quick emotional changes. He spritzes his master’s underarms before Giovanni’s next conquest, gossips to Donna Elvira with relish about her lover’s other exploits, and even stands in for him in a disguised seduction, getting some jollies of his own. Even when he wasn’t singing, Bogard was totally engaged and filled every moment with action. Right from the start in “Notte e giorno faticar,” he didn’t miss a beat of his fast-paced aria. He makes such vocal steeplechase look easy.
Raquel González has impressed me, especially singing the role of Mimi in La Bohème at Glimmerglass. She brings a quiet stateliness to the role of Donna Anna, and her voice has grown rich in luster and power. Her arias, especially the one that ends second act’s scene four, “Non mi dir, bel idol mio,” were high points of the production.
Rexford Tester seemed a little stiff this performance and lacked the emotional vocal intensity in the role of Don Ottavio, her fiancé. I wanted so to feel more of that throbbing tenor presence in “Dalla sua pace” and especially his vow of vengeance in the later fabulous tenor aria. He and the ensemble are best in the impressive quartets, sextet and even septet that Mozart has so beautifully set.
Kerriann Otaño is a terrific soprano whose vocal abilities were featured in Dead Man Walking. Here she steps into a major role as Donna Elvira, the loyal girlfriend who keeps getting dissed but comes back for more. Differentiating herself from the contained and slightly elusive Donna Anna, she approaches Elvira with generalized fluttering hands and ever-more mussed hair. This take on her character and the focused judgment on Giovanni’s licentiousness made me read her as having an obsessive even battered woman’s complex. Even so, I didn’t feel the power of a vengeful and potentially dangerous unhinged woman as she comes on and gives Giovanni what-for in the aria “Ah! fuggi il traditore.” But Otaño comes back in the second act with renewed clarity and power and sings with exquisite grace “Mi tradi quell’alma.”
Hunter Enoch and Ariana Wehr play the couple Masetto and Zerlina and showed themselves to be “game” in their choreographed frolicking. However, I didn’t feel they sufficiently established specifics in their relationship. I wish that Wehr would overcome her tendency to generalize feelings, over-grinning and indicating other reactions rather than motivating them. I found her voice still a little rough with a fast tremulous vibrato. Enoch is strongest when he is standing up in anger to the droit de seigneur usurpation of Giovanni. I wanted to see more of what this talented young singer can do.
I wonder if bringing a politically correct judgment to the character of Giovanni doesn’t slightly upend the delicious lightness of some of Mozart’s characters and relationships.
Nothing can take away the power of the last scene and its final judgment of Giovanni. Even without production values, smoke or fiery effects, when Giovanni meets his fate in the figure of The Commendatore the scene is spine-chilling. Timothy J. Bruno has that rare true bass sound that can thrill and a gravitas made for such roles in opera. As the power gets seasoned with the voice maturing further, this guy from Toledo, Ohio will be featured on major world stages I have no doubt.
I wish the same for all these fine young artists.
The audience seemed to agree as they rose to their feet applauding Zambello who proved unequivocally with this evening that there is still a demand for experiencing opera. Build it so that tickets are affordable, and they will come. So, I say to would-be underwriters, trade in your Prada and your Michael Kors and send a check to WNO. To all of us, write our congressmen and save the NEA.
This performance was March 17, 2017 at The Kennedy Center.
Don Giovanni. Composed by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Libretto by Lorenzo Da Ponte. Director: Francesca Zambello. Conducted by Michael Christie. With Michael Adams, Raquel Gonzàles, Kerriann Otaño, Andrew Bogard, Rexford Tester, Ariana Wehr, Hunter Enoch and Timothy J. Bruno. Produced by Washington National Opera. Reviewed by Susan Galbraith.