Although Lorenzo Da Ponte’s reading of the character best known as Don Juan is that he is an unrepentant rake who deserves perdition with a capital P, today’s opera directors have a dilemma on their hands: How exactly are we to understand Don Giovanni?
As the focus of one of Mozart’s finest operas, it’s a crucial question. I’ve seen him depicted as a Las Vegas crime lord in one production and in another, as a veteran lawbreaker on his last legs, done in by his deeds and dipsomania. In the current Florida Grand Opera production, which continues in Fort Lauderdale next month, the young director Mo Zhou, making her FGO debut, has taken the #MeToo movement into account and come up with a Giovanni closer in spirit to the text: A man entirely made of id, driven by a thirst for sexual conquest, and glorying in his ability to carry it off so successfully.
Contrast that with the determination by the women and men he’s wronged to bring him to account, and you get a sense of our current social debate, though in this production it never seems likely that they will be able to give him his comeuppance.
Don Giovanni, returning to FGO’s stage after nine years to open the Doral-based company’s 79th season, is handsome to look at, with fine sets by John Pascoe and striking costumes by Ann Hould-Ward. The statue of the Commendatore in Act II is particularly fine, and when he begins singing in the cemetery scene, there’s enough scary realism there to give you a shudder.
As Giovanni, the young Canadian baritone Elliot Madore is a man enjoying to the hilt his sexual power, as well as the casual cruelty that comes with his unassailable position in 18th-century Spanish society at the top of the social hierarchy. It’s not for nothing that Zerlina is ready to fall for his blandishments and run off with him.
Madore’s voice is strong and supple, though without a great deal of carrying power. His most affecting singing came with his “Deh, vieni all finestra,” in which we could hear Giovanni giving it his all, committed to the hunt, and joyful when Elvira’s maid responds with alacrity. Madore is a good-looking, physically fit man with a resplendent smile, and his shirtlessness in the final scenes of the opera drove home the idea of a predator at his peak.
As Donna Elvira, the soprano Elizabeth Caballero, a Miamian who won a hometown heroine’s ovation at the Ziff Ballet Opera House on Thursday night, delivered a highly persuasive performance as a woman on the edge, but not of madness. Her Elvira genuinely loves Giovanni and breaks up his other amours not to take Carrie Nation’s ax to his love shack, but to get the competition out of the way so she can persuade Giovanni that she’s where his list-making needs to stop.
Caballero sounded lovely, too, with a nice creamy tone throughout her register, particularly in “Mi tradi quell’alma ingrata.” Hers was a voice you wanted to hear, and a characterization you wanted to see.
Elizabeth de Trejo’s Donna Anna was more of a downer, as this character sometimes is. It’s hard to take a whole evening of moping, and de Trejo wasn’t able to convey a sense of overwhelming grief at her father’s death. She has a large and impressive voice, though, and while I found her vibrato somewhat shrill at the very top, this is a singer with stamina, as her “Or sai chi l’onore” demonstrated and her coloratura passages were well-drilled and effective.
Anna’s beau, Don Ottavio, was well-sung by Nicholas Huff, a young tenor from the Midwest whose voice has real potential as a lyric standout; his “Il mio tesoro” was suave and tender. As Zerlina, soprano Asleif Willmer was much too soft at the beginning, but by the time she got to “Batti, batti,” her voice had warmed up to its small but attractively colored best. She is quite a good actress, too, and her seduction scene with the hapless Masetto (“Vedrai, carino”) was delightful and masterfully done.
The Argentine bass Federico De Michelis was a fine Leporello, with a good if not especially distinctive voice. His Catalog Aria was well-executed, and he was believable as someone who was ready to take any other offer should one come along. There was very little humor in De Michelis’s interpretation, which is not to everyone’s taste, and indeed, many Leporellos edge toward the slapstick side of things to make their work more memorable.
As Masetto, Michael Miller was not all that interesting; we didn’t feel the brute violence simmering beneath the surface, just sort of a confused and wounded pride. It’s a logical reading of the character, but it doesn’t make for stage fireworks. The Commendatore was sung by Kevin Langan, a veteran singer who has appeared with this company for more than 30 years. If his voice does not have the force it once did, it’s still pleasingly rounded, and he made the role memorable.
The FGO chorus sounded well-rehearsed in its short appearance, but Zhou’s direction during the dancing had them too far upstage to make them believable. In order to convey a convincing party atmosphere, they should be more present in the action; it doesn’t detract too much from the story to see some fancy footwork and general merriment adding some realism to the narrative.
Christopher Allen led the excellent FGO orchestra with style and care, and everything sounded polished to a high sonic sheen. In some cases, he got ahead of his singers a little bit, and his tempi in general were brisk. But he ran things expertly, and played sensitive, minimalist continuo on the harpsichord as well.
I’ve yet to see a local production in recent years that includes the epilogue that follows Giovanni’s descent into Hell, which was done in an old-fashioned but fun way here with devil bats slithering out of the walls and Giovanni screaming as the fire closes in.
This production works without it, but it would have been just as good with it restored, and it may be time for companies to stop cutting it. Today’s audiences have seen everything thanks to CGI, and stage troupes can’t compete with that, so the depiction of Giovanni’s end doesn’t have the power it must have had in pre-movie days.
Nevertheless, this is a solid, traditional, well-directed Don Giovanni with at least three performances (Madore, Caballero and Willmer) that stood out winningly, and it marks a good kickoff to this company’s season.
Don Giovanni can be seen Dec. 5 and 7 at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts in Fort Lauderdale. Rafael Porto will sing the role of Leporello in these performances. Call 800-741-1010 or visit fgo.org for tickets or more information.