Last performed by the Santa Fe Opera in 2004, Director Chas Rader-Shieber production of Don Giovanni returned to the company’s stage last night (July 18, 2009).  Designer David Zinn clothed even the trees in red and hot pink. His movable sets adjusted the changing scenes with great dramatic effect. The opera’s famous penultimate scene was mounted with stunning and chilling tension. The Commendatore appears from stage left and then from stage right and finally from within a cabinet in rapid succession. These multiple iterations of fate’s vengeance on the Don ends with him jumping into a brightly lit drop to hell that opens from a cabinet that has grown to be about 10 feet tall. The scene capped what is a very good staging of Mozart’s masterpiece.

The costumes ranged from early 19th century to well into the 20th. This ambiguous chronology fits into the ambiguous nature of Da Ponte’s libretto.

Lucas Meachem

Lucas Meachem

It was the production, design, and fine conducting by Lawrence Renes that made this presentation a success. In general the acting was quite good. The singing only occasionally exceed the adequate. All the singers are young and are thus works in progress. Their youth was, of course, beneficial to the drama.

Lucas Meachem portrays the Don as mean and dangerous in addition to being sex crazed. A valid interpretation that would benefit from a little more charm and a little less nastiness. His Don is clearly a very dangerous guy whom you would not want to be around. He kills the Commendatore with a knife rather than a sword and threatens almost everyone with a pistol. His singing was smooth and effective. His impersonation will likely grow with repetition.

Leporello, the Don’s prosaic alter ego, was bass Matthew Rose making his Santa Fe Opera debut. Another young singer new to his role, Rose presented another emerging portrayal. “Madamina, il catalogo è questo” was well sung and well acted. The book containing the names of the Don’s conquests (or victims) was red as was most everything else in this staging. I’m almost certain that a few more years will broaden and polish his Leporello.

Donna Anna was the South African soprano Elza van den Heever. She has a very big spinto voice that goes shrill and sometimes sharp when under stress. Another relatively young artist, her future trajectory is hard to guess. Susanna Phillips was a little more comfortable as the discarded Donna Elvira. A graduate of Santa Fe’s apprentice Singer Program, she was vocally smooth and appropriately persistent as the only woman on stage that the Don was not interested in. “Mi tradì quell’alma ingrata” was very well sung – a promising voice.

Kate Lindsey’s Zerlina was a combination of randiness and mugging. Amusing, but a little over the top. Another graduate of the Apprentice Program, her light soprano had all that was needed for the role. She projected the combination of appetite and innocence that is Zerlina’s personality. Corey McKern, yet another ex-apprentice singer, was suitably bumptious as the jealous peasant Masetto. Bass Harold Wilson did all that was required from the Commendatore.

This leaves Charles Workman – Don Ottavio, perhaps opera’s biggest nebbish. The tenor, a native of Arkansas but based in the UK, has a rather gruff voice that lacks the flexibility needed for this challenging role. “Dalla sua pace” was under par; it lacked a firm line and was awkwardly delivered. Surprisingly, “Il mio tesoro” was much better. Workman’s breath control was good and the aria’s runs were delivered effectively. The voice remains rather unattractive.

The young, appealing, and convincing cast in a first rate setting directed by a director with a valid vision of Mozart’s and Da Ponte’s masterwork made for a splendid evening. Highly recommended. Catch this show if you can.

Don Giovanni hits home in so many ways that there are many ways to present it. For a review of a deranged mounting that I saw in London five years ago see below

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Things can always get worse. Consider Don Giovanni at the English National Opera. I was at the October 4th performance. Calixto Bieito was the director. He is from Barcelona. My theory is that looking at all that wonderful, but weird, Gaudí architecture has destroyed his cerebral cortex. How else can one explain the dreck he put on the Coliseum’s stage in the guise of Mozart’s and Da Ponte’s opera. Another contributing cause may be that he was once in the same city at the same time as Jacque Derrida.

First you must understand that a director like Bieito, and his ilk, intends to offend and outrage. Those are the only emotions they are skilled enough to evoke. When people walk out of the theater in mid performance or boo, the no talent director feels fulfilled. The more offense you take the more they offend. It’s like yelling at your pet parrot to shut up when he’s squawking very loudly. The louder you yell, the louder he squawks. Thus indifference is the best response to the directorial rape of opera. After all Mozart and Don Giovanni will be around a lot longer than Calixto Bieito.

Apparently, this production was first mounted by the ENO a few years ago. It aroused so much ire at the time that it was said to be partly responsible for the resignation of the company’s director. So the director resigns, a new director is hired, and guess what? It’s back. Don’t yell at the parrot. The International Herald Tribune from whence I got this history of the production also said that the current version was toned down from the original. Ah to be in England when the tone is not down.

To start with the opera was performed in English. I could tell it was English because there were no surtitles. Of course, it might have Esperanto as I could barely understand a word. Changing the language of an opera to the vernacular gives a loony director even more excuse to change the plot. Bieito’s Don Giovanni is set in the present. Whether or not it’s in Spain is uncertain as Leporello spends a lot of time wearing and abusing a Union Jack. A similar use (or abuse) of the Stars and Stripes on an American stage would lead to a full scale riot, though the Supreme Court would hold it to be protected free speech; nonetheless riot would ensue.

Leporello arrives driving a car. The Don and Donna Anna are in the back seat copulating like gerbils. They get out. The Don is either finished or bored, but Donna Anna wants more. But her father appears; he doesn’t look like a Commendatore. The Don stabs him and there is much blood. Father’s bloody body is stuffed in the back of the car. You might have thought him dead, but it was really only a flesh wound as he comes back in the second act not as a statue, but as an even bloodier dad. Blood is a dominant motif in this production. There’s more of it than in 10 corridas.

The rest of the opera resembles a deranged Ken Russell movie – here I may be redundant. The Don is presented as a sex crazed, alcoholic bisexual hophead. There’s more smut than in 10 skin flicks. Leporello urinates on stage in the first act, the Don takes a whiz in the second. Don Ottavio appears at the Don’s party at the end of the first act in a Superman costume complete with large muscles. At the party DG rapes Zerelina who is wearing a wedding gown which thereafter is covered with so much blood that I thought the Don had assaulted a different organ. The are lots of hula dancing dolls on the stage. Both the Don and Leporello are inordinately fond of cold cereal – Coco Pops to be precise. The Don phones in his serenade. Ottavio sang Il mio tesoro (I couldn’t catch the English words, so I’ll stick to the original Italian) while Leporello was chained to a billiard table wearing a garbage can on his head. But the best piece of stage business was that attached to Non mi dir. Donna Anna launches into the aria whereupon Ottavio begins to grope her, then he reaches under her skirt and removes her underpants which he tosses onto the middle of the stage. Then he unzips his fly and has at her. All the while she keeps on singing. How that poor woman stayed on pitch is a miracle. You must believe that I’m not making any of this up. Who could invent something remotely like this? The aria ends with three climaxes – one by Mozart and two inserted by Bieito.

Now the Brits are pretty tough, but even they can only take so much. Nobody walked out during the first act. But about 15% of the audience called it a night after the interval. A general retreat ensued, however, during the second act – it was like the Roman legions at Cannae. Non mi dir drove an elderly gentleman seated behind me out of the theater muttering imprecations I couldn’t understand, but the intent of which was clear. He was gone before I could tell him my parrot story, not that it would have made any difference.

But there’s more. The statue of the Commendatore (there was no statue but you know what I mean) speaks to DG out of a bottle of booze. The Commendatore staggers out of the car, even bloodier than in the first act, to attend the Don’s dinner – mostly Coco Pops and eggs. Instead of dragging the Don down to hell, the Don finishes him off and stuffs him back in the car. Then he (DG) goes mad. Probably because he knows this is not the last performance of the run. The opera’s final jolly little scene has the Don taped to a chair, his back to the audience. The rest of the cast takes turns stabbing him to death. End of show.

I have a solution. The EU could pass a rule (they love to make rules) forbidding any EU citizen from directing opera. They would have to include Texas in the rule to protect us from Robert Wilson. That would leave the Americas (Texas excepted), Asia, and Australia to mount the world’s opera – more than enough talent there to get the works staged. EU citizens would be free to direct anything else. It’s just opera they have to stay clear of. We saw a splendid production of Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd the night following Don Giovanni. It was directed by the UK’s John Doyle. There’s a lot of blood written into that piece. Seven of the nine characters get their throats cut. Doyle managed to bring that off without resorting to caricature. The orchestra was the cast. They all played a variety of instruments at a very high level of skill – a tour de force.

But back to Don Giovanni. There was singing and playing – all of it very good. A blind man would have loved this performance. David Parry conducted with skill and insight. The penultimate scene, one of opera’s most inspired moments, sounded powerful and awe inspiring. Parry must be very near-sighted not to have been terminally distracted by what was going on in front of him. The singers were all young and attractive. Mark Stone has a pleasant baritone that’s a little light for the title role. Silvio is in his repertoire, that’s about what he’s ready for now. He’s very young and may yet develop the voice needed for the Don. Barry Banks has been gradually moving up the tenor pole. He was impressive as Menelas in last year’s La Belle Hellene in Santa Fe. He handled Il mio tesoro with ease though his approach was a little too muscular for my taste. Unfortunately Dalla sua pace was cut. I’d have liked to hear him sing something with a long line. Directors can’t seem to avoid making an issue of his short stature. His Donna Anna (Linda Richardson) was a lot taller and wore five inch heels. His head just about reached her bosom. Ms Richardson deserves the Richard M Nixon award for persistence in the face of continuous abuse. That she could sing at all was remarkable, that she sang very well was miraculous. Iain Paterson is a true bass and was outstanding as poor Leporello.

Victoria Simmonds and William Berger were convincing as the peasant couple. Mary Plazas sang Ah! fuggi il traditor with power and ease. Hans-Peter Scheidegger made the most of the time he was allowed out of the back of the car.

Don Giovanni is a great opera. In addition to Mozart’s wonderful music, one of the opera’s sources of fascination is its dramatic ambiguity. What really happened in that bedroom between the Don and Anna? How come the great seducer really succeeds with no one over the course of the opera? Freud said that a man who can’t find what he’s looking for in 1000 women is looking for a man. Absurdities ignored, Bieito has removed all the ambiguities that make this opera so interesting. That’s his true failure as a director.

Originally published online in Oct 2004, but no longer available at its original site.