By Robert Croan
Mozart’s Don Giovanni was special from the time of its premiere in Prague in 1787: a great drama told in great music, with the combination amounting to something more than either would be on its own.
Balancing comic and tragic elements in equal proportions, Mozart and his librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte called the opera a dramma giocoso (playful drama), casting it in the form of an opera buffa, but they also gave it the subtitle, “The Dissolute Punished.” The opening scene begins with a comic aria for a disgruntled servant, immediately followed by a rape and a murder.
At the end, the eponymous anti-hero goes down to Hell in flames, his retribution balanced by a comic epilogue in which the remaining characters recite the moral: “This how a bad person comes to an end.” Both elements will be explored in Florida Grand Opera’s production of Mozart’s masterpiece, which opens at Miami’s Adrienne Arsht Center on Saturday night.
Viewers argue to this day as to whether Don Giovanni is a comedy with tragic elements, or the reverse. Even Mozart and Da Ponte were ambivalent. For a revival in Vienna, they added new scenes (comic and serious), while making some cuts, including the entire epilogue, thereby ending the opera on a tragic note. Is the title character – his name is the Italian form of Don Juan – the world’s greatest lover, or a repugnant sexual predator? Traditionally, the former interpretation prevailed. Post-MeToo productions tend to take a more contemporary point of view. The present production, directed by Mo Zhou, takes a traditional approach.
Canadian baritone Elliot Madore, 32, who will sing the title role for FGO, says of this dichotomy, “When I was young and brash I tried to make him as evil and repulsive as possible. I sang my first Don with James Levine at Tanglewood when I was 21. As I got older, I’ve tried to humanize him. This is my seventh ‘Don Giovanni’ production. Now I’m interested in why he did these things. He had a mother and a father. You have to devise the why for yourself.”
Don Giovanni is generally considered the greatest opera ever written. The 19th-century Danish writer Soren Kierkegaard went even further to call it the world’s greatest work of art – for reasons that were religious and philosophical rather than musical and theatrical. As musical theater, part of its greatness lies in the way Mozart has given each character an individual musical language that goes beyond what the words alone tell us.
Madore, a 2009 winner of the Palm Beach Vocal Competition, points out that “Giovanni has only two vocally simple arias and the great seduction duet, ‘La cì darem la mano’.” The rest is mostly recitatives. But he’s constantly on. The hardest part of the role is the stamina – how to pace yourself, to know when to hold back. That comes with experience.”
For better or worse, the Don towers over the remaining characters as a superhero (or anti-hero), an ancient Greek protagonist with a tragic flaw. His solos include an exuberant “Champagne Aria” and a honeyed Serenade, each less than three minutes long. His most elaborate solo is an action aria that goes by unnoticed.
Madore considers the Serenade most revealing: “The surface seduction is in the first verse. The words of the second verse show his vulnerability [“Don’t be cruel with me.”]. I aim for quietude, transparency, when I sing it.” The baritone singles out the recitative that leads into “La cì darem.”
“Don Giovanni is like a hypnotist, luring [the peasant girl Zerlina] into his trap. The challenge is finding a way below the surface level, not reduce him to being a violent womanizer, although he is that too.”
The Don’s servant Leporello (Federico De Michelis in Miami, Rafael Porto in Fort Lauderdale) has catalogued 2,065 female conquests, yet every onstage attempted seduction ends in failure and embarrassment. Leporello, the Don’s mirror image and conscience, has much more to sing, and he gets the best (and longest) aria, “Madamina, il catalogo.”
Da Ponte’s plot centers on three women encountered on the last day of Don Giovanni’s life – each brilliantly defined by her music. Woman No. 1, Donna Anna (Elizabeth de Trejo), projects high vocal lines with a haughty arrogance, and dominates the ensembles in which she appears. Woman No. 2, Donna Elvira (Elizabeth Caballero), sings jagged melodies that suggest madness, while the peasant girl Zerlina’s (Asleif Willmer) music has the simplicity of folk songs.
In Act 2, Elvira’s music turns more tender, underlining that she is the only one who loves Giovanni; while Anna’s lines become more unstable, culminating in extended virtuoso roulades at the end of her aria, “Non mi dir,” defining her deteriorated mental state.
Madore emphasizes the importance of interacting with other characters in the opera. “It requires a communal effort,” he says. “The orchestra, the singers, the conductor, all have to think what’s best for the music, not what’s best for themselves.” He alludes to three Don Giovannis of the previous generation: Thomas Allen, Simon Keenlyside and Gerald Finley.
“I try to emulate them,” Madore says. “Rather than being all voice and loud all the time, they found other ways to characterize. Elegance, style, nuance: those are the things I strive for.”
Don Giovanni runs from Nov. 16 to Dec. 7, with four performances (Nov. 16, 19, 21 and 24) at the Ziff Ballet Opera House in Miami and two (Dec. 5 and 7) at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts in Fort Lauderdale. The opening night performance Saturday starts at 7 p.m. For tickets or more information, call 800-741-1010 or visit www.fgo.org.