Mozart called his opera Don Giovanni an opera buffa, and his librettist Lorenzo da Ponte called it a “dramma giocoso” (playful drama), but the work’s ending, with its protagonist being swallowed by the earth after the statue of a man he killed comes to dinner and implores him to repent, has seemed to many stage directors of the past two centuries to define the opera as a piece of supernatural tragedy.
But the opera’s creators had a good reason for thinking of the work in a lighter vein, and the current fast-paced, exciting mounting of Don Giovanni at the Palm Beach Opera demonstrates why.
Using a production from the Lyric Opera of Kansas City that sets the 1787 opera in a mildly film-noir context in an unnamed American city in the 1950s, this Don Giovanni has plenty of fine singing, absorbing stage direction and visuals, and a pace that rarely slackens despite the evening’s three-hour length.
Director Kristine McIntyre has given her singing actors plenty to do, and they’re all in: Each performer brings as full a characterization to his or her role as the show allows, and the result is a stage naturalism with none of the stand-and-sing artificiality of operas tradition. Aided by a sharp set design by R. Keith Brumley (the Don’s house is a supper club called Giovanni’s, spelled out in blue neon), handsome costumes by Mary Traylor and evocative, strategic lighting by Marcus Dilliard (noir fans will appreciate the Third Man shadow in the first act), this is a good-looking show that feels more like a stylish police procedural than an 18th-century morality play.
As Giovanni, the Ukrainian baritone Andrei Bondarenko gave a fine performance of a Giovanni that was suitably oily, but also a flawed lawbreaker who can’t handle his liquor and seems to know the jig is almost up. He has a strong voice and always sings well, particularly in the “Deh, vieni alla finestra” serenade of Act II, when his singing took on a softer, more passionate tone. It’s not a particularly big voice, however, and he was sometimes harder to hear than other singers on the stage.
A case in point was the Australian bass Joshua Bloom, whose large, resonant instrument made his characterization of Leporello particularly memorable. An excellent singer, he is also a fine actor and good physical comic whose shtick in the Cyrano-style serenade of the unwitting Donna Elvira had the large Kravis Center house Friday night laughing steadily.
Russian tenor Bogdan Volkov was a good Ottavio, with a tight-sounding voice that proved to have real stamina; it came into its own with his “Il mio tesoro” in Act II. The Jamaican bass-baritone Neil Nelson, who got strong notices for his Porgy last month with the South Florida Symphony, was a delightful Masetto, with a rich, pretty voice and splendid acting chops. As the Commendatore, the Russian bass Mikhail Kolelishvili was an imposing presence with a handsome though not oracular voice; he sang his final entrance sharp, and it took a little time for it to settle in where it needed to be.
This Don Giovanni is fortunate in its three female leads. Donna Anna, sung by Detroiter Caitlin Lynch, and Donna Elvira, sung by Pittsburgh’s Danielle Pastin, both have big, powerful instruments that made short work of their roles’ vocal difficulties. Lynch’s Anna was a devoted daughter crushed by her father’s death, but one who also remained somewhat at a remove from the action, in the style of a professional widow. She was especially good in her “Non mi dir, bell’idol mio” at the end of Act II, when the slightly reedy quality of her voice added a touch of real pathos to her shelving of Ottavio.
Pastin (seen earlier this year in a very good art song recital at the Four Arts) was, as the character demands, more ferocious, but also far more unstable, and utterly convincing as a woman totally obsessed with Giovanni, dashing around for much of the opera in peignoir and bare feet as if a fire in the kitchen had awakened her in the middle of the night. Her dark, large voice didn’t lose strength by the time she came to the “Mi tradi quell’alma ingrata,” (which Mozart added for the second, Vienna production in 1788) though she sounded a little out of breath for the rising, surging figures of the aria. There was a nice bit of stage business there, too, with Pastin nervously fingering a ribbon of white silk that she eventually turns into wrist cuffs.
The Canadian mezzo Danielle MacMillan turned in a splendid Zerlina, something of a minx but believably earthy at the same time. She has a smallish but attractive voice, and in her “Batti, batti o bel Masetto” she raised the temperature in the room significantly with her seduction of Masetto.
In the pit, David Stern led a first-class Palm Beach Opera Orchestra, and his commitment to the music was plain to see and hear. Greg Ritchey’s chorus sang well in its brief moments on stage.
This production of Don Giovanni chooses, as most productions I’ve seen in the past 10 years or so have done, to end the opera with Giovanni being sucked into hell. But that’s not the actual ending of the opera. There is a final scene of about five minutes’ duration in which the main characters come back with the police, looking for Giovanni.
Leporello tells the others that Giovanni is gone, and everyone then makes a statement about moving forward: Elvira says she’s going to join a convent, Anna and Ottavio agree to wait a year before marrying, Masetto and Zerlina say they’re going home to dinner, and Leporello says he’s heading down to the pub to find a better master.
The six then join in a short song saying Giovanni has received his just desserts, and that this is the fate of all sinners who traduce life. Mozart deftly takes us from the drama of Giovanni’s end into the characters’ reflection about their futures, and then into a joyful good-riddance fugato. It’s a fine ending, but it’s also easy to understand why it’s often cut.
And therein lies the tale of this Don Giovanni: The stage direction is so good, and the singers’ response to it so adroit, that this version of the opera does not work without the real ending. The Commendatore does not come back as a stone guest, but as a sort of King Hamlet without his beaver, walking into the club where a drunken Giovanni is astounded to see him. After the Commendatore leaves, Leporello and Giovanni struggle for a gun, and Giovanni is killed: A suicide that Leporello couldn’t stop? An accidental discharge?
Either one works, but the point is that turning Don Giovanni into a throwback episode of Law and Order: Moral Ambiguity makes the audience invested in the characters in a way they wouldn’t be in other productions that focus solely on Giovanni as an anarchic menace and merchant of evil. And so the audience Friday night seemed somewhat let down by the abrupt ending of the opera, and no wonder.
This production is ideally suited for Mozart and da Ponte’s original ending, and doing without it leaves this show with a blemish. By all means, go see it, but acquaint yourself with the actual ending so you get the whole story.
Don Giovanni can be seen tonight at 7:30 and on Sunday at 2 p.m. at the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach. The cast referenced above will perform at Sunday’s matinee, but in tonight’s performance, Giovanni will be sung by Edward Nelson, Anna by Hailey Clark, Elvira by Felicia Moore and Leporello by Zachary Nelson. Tickets start at $20; call 832-7469 or visit kravis.org. Or call 833-7888 or visit pbopera.org.