Don Juan—er, Don Giovanni—is alive and well in the 21st century

By Philippa Kiraly

Mozart knew what he was about when he chose the Don Juan story for his opera “Don Giovanni.” The character lives, today as much as he has through the ages, the seductive rake without conscience or regard for the consequences of his actions.

The opera is invariably popular. The current production, mounted by Seattle Opera’s Young Artists Program and performed at the Theatre at Meydenbauer Center, is set today, in a seedy little cafe somewhere in Southern Europe, where the entertainment is old, very old, movies from the silent era which play much of the time on the back screen.

The singers are splendid, as is their acting: David Krohn as the Don; Erik Anstine as his servant Leporello; Marcy Stonikas as Donna Anna, the woman the Don has been trying to seduce at the start of the opera; Amanda Opuszynski as Donna Elvira, the woman he has seduced and left before the opera; guest artist Jacqueline Bezek as Zerlina, the peasant bride he is trying to seduce during the opera; Adrian Rosas as Masetto, her groom; and Andrew Stenson alternating with Eric Neuville as Don Ottavio, the fiance of Donna Anna. And, or course, the nemesis, the Commendatore, father of Donna Anna, sung also by Rosas as he only appears at the very beginning and the very end.

All the singers have voices which could use a space larger than Meydenbauer. Stonikas and Opuszynski seemed to find it hard to moderate their voices in that small hall and in consequence sounded loud or louder. Stonikas has a beautiful soprano of Wagnerian size and I imagine we will hear her in those roles soon. Soprano Opuszynski frequently sounded on the screechy side, but it suited her role to perfection, that of the spitfire ex-girlfriend from hell, determined that no one else should have the Don if she can’t, putting a spoke in his wheel wherever possible, and vacillating between loathing and loving him.

Making her Seattle Opera debut as costume designer, Candace Frank came up with some notable attire: the Don tastefully flashy, with snap brim fedora; Anna trailing funereal weeds but with a superb cartwheel black hat with flowers and veil; Elvira the modern girl about town: heels, short skirt, halter top, bright waist bow, with snappy jacket and dark lipstick; Ottavio very formal and out of date with spats and homburg hat; Zerlina all girlish innocence in short white dress and high heels while Masetto managed a vest and buttonhole for his wedding but retained his everyday sneakers, cap and chinos; and of course Leporello mostly in checks with a cap.

So far, so good. However, an opera performance is the sum of its parts, and the set left much to be desired. We all know the shifts opera companies are making today to keep within much reduced budgets. Apparently it was too expensive to bring over to Meydenbauer appropriate parts of sets Seattle Opera has in storage. Director Peter Kazaras, always full of imaginative solutions, came up with simple scaffolding on each side, which the Don and Leporello could shinny up and down at need, a bunch of café chairs and two tiny tables. And, of course, the backdrop with its old movies.

There was nothing here on which to rest the eye or which furthered or supported the action. The whole weight was thrown upon the singers, who rose to the occasion, but it left a dissatisfied feeling that we had come to three quarters of an opera performance.

However, as an education for the young artists it was superb. They had to act really well along with singing. Interestingly, Kazaras’ concept made the focus of the production the three women rather than the Don. Each became a rounded character. While Elvira is a termagent, Anna is a drama queen (I felt sorry for the loving but dejected Ottavio), and Zerlina just a fun-loving youngster learning a lesson. Masetto is a justly furious groom. The Don is a heel as we know, but the person who loses out is Leporello. His character of the aiding and abetting servant doesn’t exist today, and he seemed diminished in this setting, despite some superb singing.

Excellent lighting by Connie Yun, the set designed by Donald Eastman, and the orchestra conducted by Brian Garman completed the production.

There are three more performances at Meydenbauer Center; April 3 at 2, April 7 and 9 at 7.30. Tickets $50, students $20 at seattleopera.org.

Next year, spring performances by theYoung Artists move to Meany Theater, the fall production at Benaroya Hall.

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One thought on “Don Juan—er, Don Giovanni—is alive and well in the 21st century

  1. As someone who has been involved with opera most of his life and who is concerned with the quality, or lack thereof, of opera singing in America today, I find your review to be troubling.
    Let me first say that I have not been to the “Don Giovanni” performance, and therefore cannot comment on how the “young artists” actually performed. What I take exception with, is what your comments say to the readers who also have not been to the performance and may not be knowledgeable about classical singing.

    You state, “The singers are splendid,” but go on to say that two of the singers (I have purposely avoided naming them) “seemed to find it hard to moderate (did you mean modulate?) their voices in that small hall and in consequence sounded loud or louder”. About another singer you say she “frequently sounded on the screechy side”. How then, may I ask, can they be “splendid singers”? They probably have great potential and may have beautiful vocal color, but if they cannot control their voices, then they are not yet ready for a professional career, and they are clearly not yet “splendid singers”.
    Vocal modulation is difficult, especially with large voices, but it is a basic component of proper vocal technique. Sounding “screechy” is not something any singer aspires to and clearly Mozart did not intend.
    I think it is good and well to be helpful and kind to young developing singers, but it is a disservice to them to pass off flawed or unfinished voices as “splendid”. If we really care about these young artist we should point out their strengths but also their weaknesses. You have, indeed, noted flaws but pass them off as being caused by the size of the hall and an unpleasant sound, as fitting the character.
    You say, in your last major paragraph, that, “as an education for the young artists it was superb. They had to act really well along with singing.” I find the opposite to be true. Today we have many of our young singers going from one “young artist program” to another, where we are told they are learning to be “singing actors”. I will not go into whether great acting is important to an opera singer or not but I simply ask, is Renee Fleming a great actress? What about Placido Domingo? Until you have your vocal technique well established, it is very difficult to do intricate stage business. It would be so much better for these young singers if they had a chance to sing roles that are right for their voices, in a simply staged performance with orchestra, so that they could learn how to control their nerves and get used to the routine of opera performance. It might not be as exciting for the audience, but it certainly would be more beneficial for the young singers.

    Additionally, I think we must build an audience that knows what good vocalization is and not be fooled into thinking that big sound and good looks and acting equal good singing or a good opera performance. Unfortunately these young people will learn the realities sooner, (I fear) than the public will, when they eventually leave the “fantasy” world of young artist programs and audition for real opera companies and real agents.

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