‘Don Giovanni’ — Mozart’s Opera Comes to Supper in North Carolina

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North Carolina Opera production of Don Giovanni (Photo: North Carolina Opera)
North Carolina Opera production of Don Giovanni (All Photos: courtesy of North Carolina Opera)

At the final performance of April 26, 2015 of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, given by North Carolina Opera at the A.J. Fletcher Opera Theater in Raleigh, the audience rose to its feet to applaud one of the better productions of this masterwork to be found anywhere.

With scenery courtesy of Virginia Opera and designed by Erhard Rom; costumes by John Pascoe, originally conceived for Michigan Opera Theatre and coordinated for North Carolina Opera by Denise Schumaker; and English captions by Jonathan Dean, owned by Seattle Opera, this Don Giovanni set new levels of vocalism and professionalism in the Tar Heel State.

Timothy Myers, who led the North Carolina Opera Orchestra in a full-bodied reading of this miraculous score, deserves much of the credit for its success, as do several others. Myers also contributed to the harpsichord continuo with his baton clenched between his teeth. This made for a few humorous moments during Don Giovanni’s Act II Serenade. Along with a rapid reading of the work itself, there was a forward thrust that brought dramatic focus and cohesion to the opera as a whole, leading to its inevitable and justly celebrated climax with the ghostly apparition of the Stone Guest. I would have welcomed a more leisurely approach to some of the more familiar airs, but for the most part this was a first-class venture from start to finish.

Myers got down to business by plunging headlong into the work’s familiar D minor opening chords and never letting up thereafter. The string section sounded a tad scrawny at the outset, but it made up in articulation and timing what it lacked in luxuriance. There was also plenty of pit-to-stage contact, which helped maintain good communication throughout the performance (there is no prompter’s box in the 600-seat A.J. Fletcher auditorium).

The balcony scene: Leporello (Adam Lau) pretends to woo Donna Elvira (Hailey Clark) as the Don (Jeongcheol Cha) coaches him
The balcony scene: Leporello (Adam Lau) pretends to woo Donna Elvira (Hailey Clark) as the Don (Jeongcheol Cha) looks on

Some loss of momentum was natural at the beginning of Act II, but blame Mozart and his librettist, Lorenzo da Ponte, for setting up a first act finale that is hard to beat no matter what they subsequently dreamed up. Ever the over-achiever, the workaholic Signor da Ponte had co-opted a libretto by Giovanni Bertati for a one-act version of Don Giovanni composed, oddly enough, in the same year as Mozart’s work (1787) by one Giuseppe Gazzaniga. The play that da Ponte eventually presented to Herr Mozart for his consideration, while dramatically viable in its first act, was one that bordered on the repetitious for the second (take, for example, the two Zerlina and Masetto exchanges, which are virtual mirror images of each other). From the middle of Act II on, the action moves swiftly to the fiery finish.

The opera’s sets were of the sliding, utilitarian variety that permitted quick scene changes, while maintaining at least a semblance of the Spanish countryside, for one; a balcony with alcove, for another; and, finally, a lavish banquet hall. The curtain went up on a gathering of fallen women (literally and figuratively) strewn about the stage. Immediately, a thought came up: “Oh, great, another ‘concept’ production.” Thankfully, that never materialized. The only concept director Crystal Manich had in mind was to follow the script. Obviously, Ms. Manich had done her homework and studied da Ponte’s libretto for clues as to how to block each scene and number in the most flowing manner possible. In the scene just described, the remains of the Don’s conquests, the physical remnants of his many affairs with women of every type and description (so humorously enumerated in Leporello’s excruciatingly detailed “Catalogue” Aria) became part of the drama at key intervals.

Praise must also be given the director for those inventive interplays between characters. Why, even the supernumeraries played a major role in the action, either by their holding aloft props and lighted candelabra, or fanning themselves in the hot Spanish sun. Whatever bits of business were incorporated, they worked brilliantly in maintaining the specific mood of the number or numbers being sung. They kept the action moving, a nice touch overall; indeed, much of the singers’ movements were fluid, transitioning seamlessly from one scene to the other, with no signs of awkwardness anywhere, nor from any of the participants who may have lost their way.

Donna Elvira (Hailey Clark) hears about Giovanni's conquest from Leporello (Adam Lau)
Donna Elvira (Hailey Clark) hears about Giovanni’s conquest from Leporello (Adam Lau)

A case in point involved the scene in Act II where Don Giovanni, in disguise as his servant Leporello, gave conflicting instructions to Masetto and a group of none-too-bright peasants. Their movements up-and-down and across the stage were cleverly choreographed to the text in perfect coordination and in time to the music.

The chorus was spare and lean befitting the sparseness of the sets, save for a well-stocked dinner table at the Act II banquet scene (the Don’s final supper, it turns out). Don Giovanni partakes of heaping mouthfuls of food, mighty tempting to Leporello’s eyes, and a most convincing display of gluttony. I missed the sledgehammer blows to Giovanni’s door by the Stone Guest (indicated in the score, by the way). Beyond that, there were no complaints about the acting or singing. The duel at the start between the dashing Don and the old Commendatore could have used a touch more panache, but the scene of Masetto’s beating by Giovanni was expertly staged.

Casting Coup

In my view, Mozart should be sung by young singers; his music has the exuberance and energy of youth, as well as a youthful impetuosity. And this group of stylish young artists gathered by North Carolina Opera for this performance was more than attuned to the rigors and exigencies of the Mozartian style. For in the end, Don Giovanni is about the music, which most of the cast members were able to convey with mastery and effectiveness.

Zerlina (Jennifer Cherest) is wooed by Don Giovanni (Jeongcheol Cha)
Zerlina (Jennifer Cherest) is wooed by Don Giovanni (Jeongcheol Cha)

As the nefarious libertine of the title, Korean-born bass-baritone Jeongcheol Cha made an excellent impression. Suave and smooth in form, Cha had an elegant stage presence and vocal finesse in his wooing of the three women. Virile of voice, with splendid Italian diction and loads of sex appeal — these are the essential qualities of a truly great Don, which Cha is well on his way to attaining.

He ran a little short of breath at the breakneck speed with which maestro Myers dashed through the so-called Champagne Aria, “Finch’han del vino,” but was smooth as silk in his gorgeously vocalized “Deh vieni alla finestra” (he even managed some dexterous fingering on the mandolin, played pizzicato by the violins). Cha’s soft-singing was most pleasurable to the ear in the recitative leading up to the “La ci darem la mano” duet with a playful Zerlina. He let out all the stops, though, for a spine-tingling final encounter with the statue of the dead Commendatore. Cha’s Don maintained his defiance to the end, unrepentant and unbowed, as he was dragged literally to hell (elevator going down?). A superb performance!

Adam Lau was a funny and jovial punching-bag of a Leporello, fast on his feet and quick with the quip and the wisecrack when the situation called for it, with a plummy-toned bass-baritone that was sufficiently individual from Cha’s as to be distinctive. Both artists are of Asian descent, which lent even more credibility to their exchange of clothing in the scene where they dupe the jilted Donna Elvira into thinking she’s being wooed by her ex-lover the Don. Lau’s Catalogue Aria, “Madamina, il catalogo è questo,” was humorously done, as female embodiments of the various nationalities that populate the Don’s list milled about. (The one from “Alemagna,” or Germany, held a pretzel in her hand!) Lau was the clear audience favorite at ovation time, winning a well-earned round of applause.

Don Ottavio (David Blalock) swears to avenge the death of Donna Anna's (Alexandra Loutsion) father
Don Ottavio (David Blalock) swears an oath to Donna Anna (Alexandra Loutsion) to avenge her father’s death

Soprano Alexandra Loutsion’s formidable Donna Anna effectively conveyed the character’s steadfastness in seeking revenge for her father’s murder. Her “Or sai chi l’onore” and “Non mi dir” were models of vocal coloration and emotional commitment, fulfilling every coloratura requirement called for. A full-throated performer, Loutsion, in looks and voice, reminded one of a young Angela Meade, which is a backdoor way of saying that a career in early Verdi and bel canto is right around the corner, with Puccini and Strauss waiting in the wings. Her acting was above reproach and her moments with Don Ottavio turned into a heart-wrenching experience. Keep up the wonderful work!

Her betrothed, Don Ottavio, was sung by tenor David Blalock, a graduate of UNC Greensboro. Although he was denied his Act I aria, “Dalla sua pace,” Blalock passed the breath-control test with a poised and assured “Il mio tesoro,” taken at a faster than normal clip, which probably served the sentiments of the piece well enough. His tone was ingratiating throughout, the voice slightly nasal. But he offered straightforward masculinity in a character usually passing for a wimp in Donna Anna’s hands. His was a commanding Ottavio, with a strongly projected persona. His part in the trio of the masqueraders blended well with the two outstanding sopranos yet stood out on its own. He also saw the joke in Donna Anna’s telling him, in the Epilogue, to wait another year before they can marry.

Soprano Hailey Clark, another native Carolinian, took the vocal honors as a barnstorming, breathlessly exciting Donna Elvira. She burned up the stage at her every opportunity with a voice demanding that attention be paid. Now here’s a real find: robust stage deportment, a potent and agile soprano, expressive body language, and a torrent of temperament — the perfect combination for an opera star in the making. From her first entrance in Act I, “Ah, chi mi dice mai,” in which she was joined by Don Giovanni and Leporello, on through to a moving “Mi tradi quell’alma ingrata,” an aria written for the Vienna premiere, Ms. Clark dominated the proceedings by employing her rock-solid technique in the service of the score. This is a performer to watch! No Don Giovanni in his right mind could possibly resist this Donna Elvira’s pleas to reform his wicked ways. In Hailey’s capable hands, this was the outstanding performance of the afternoon, and the applause at the end reflected it.

As the pert and lively Zerlina, the petite Jennifer Cherest showed plenty of spunk, with a spry personality and the suppleness of a born comedienne. She spouted real spit-fire in confronting both the seductive Don and her bumbling boyfriend, Masetto. There was a huge height differential between her and David Weigel, the Masetto, who she successfully played off of. They made a fun couple, one minute tender and loving, and the next minute scolding and defiant. Cherest was especially enchanting in her “Batti, batti, o bel Masetto,” in which she threw herself at his mercy, practically begging him to punish her for having flirted with the Don.

As for Weigel, his clunky stage delivery meshed well with Masetto’s rube-like character. Nobleman or no, this Masetto’s gut instincts told him Don Giovanni is not to be trusted (“Ho capito, signor si!”). Tonally, though a shade underpowered (at least, from where I was sitting), I wager Weigel would make a fine Marcello in La Bohème, as well as an optimal Billy Budd. He could have used more heft to underline his jealous rants, but that’s a minor point. Both he and Cherest were treasurable in their scenes together.

The Stone Guest (Benjamin LeClair) drags Don Giovanni (Jeongcheol Cha) to hell
The Stone Guest (Benjamin LeClair) drags Don Giovanni (Jeongcheol Cha) to hell

Benjamin LeClair’s Commendatore, despite some initial woofy tonality at his first appearance, offered great height as an imposing Stone Guest. His voice was electronically enhanced in both the graveyard scene and in the Stone Guest’s visit to Giovanni’s palace. The supernatural elements worked just fine here, thanks to the amplification. More focused projection would help LeClair to put over the Commendatore’s anger in the early going, as well as putting more bite into his words.

As you can see, this was one of the most enjoyable productions of Mozart’s immortal Don Giovanni in memory. May there be more of this kind of solid musicianship and professionalism from North Carolina Opera. The cast and crew are to be commended.

Copyright © 2015 by Josmar F. Lopes

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