Mozart's morality tale of the sexual exploits and punishment of legendary seducer Don Juan finds flawless musical expression in Don Giovanni. Juicy, lascivious scenes set in 17th-century Seville catch the seasoned fornicator in his underwear, inspiring chuckles as well as sympathy pangs for the innocent victims. In one hilarious scene, Don Giovanni's jaded servant, Leporello, tries to appease Donna Elvira, the rake's latest victim, by revealing the contents of his master's "black book." It runs up to 2,000 lines. A practiced womanizer, he has accumulated 640 conquests in Italy, 231 in Germany, 100 in France and more than 1,000 in Spain. Leporello belts out this catalog of conquests until the audience sniggers at poor Elvira for falling for such a louse.
Houston Grand Opera's latest production has the recipe down for Mozartian confection: Lawrence Renes sensitively conducts the Houston Symphony, Danish baritone Bo Skovhus is both silky and powerful, an international cast provides solid vocals, and HGO trots out its ingenious 1991 set by the late Göran Jarvefelt. Only one thing mars this date with Don Giovanni: The lead character is sometimes more silly than seductive. Whether by Harry Silverstein's decision or by the singer's own discretion, Skovhus's Giovanni leans toward the hammy side of the character's freewheeling nature, which undercuts the composer's tragi-comic balance. Yes, we're supposed to laugh at the cavalier's exploits, but we're also meant to indulge in the victims' revenge. Skovhus handles the arias and ensembles brilliantly, but his misreading of Giovanni's recklessness is over the top.
Mozart's famous, lengthy overture promises Judgment Day for Giovanni. Aided by the text of librettist Lorenzo da Ponte, the hero is gradually undercut by the grand expression of his victims' suffering and revenge. Three victims determine to destroy him. Each plays a serious foil to the rest of the comic cast. Donna Anna (Bulgarian soprano Alexandrina Pendatchanska) wants him to pay for murdering her father; her fiancé, Don Ottavio (American tenor Greg Fedderly), dutifully goes along with her wishes. And Donna Elvira (American soprano Pamela Armstrong) vacillates but eventually learns to hate being loved and left (especially the second time). Thus, the table is set for the tuneful melodrama of the rake's methods and imminent doom.
As Giovanni's jocular, world-weary servant, Leporello, Italian baritone Alessandro Corbelli is a hit. An expert in bel canto singing style, he shines as the master seducer's comic foil, with gorgeous trilling and liquid-smooth scales. Corbelli's timing is as marvelous as his instrument, especially when he assures Elvira that the scoundrel's sole aim is conquest, not constancy.
No doubt Skovhus overdoes the slapstick in portraying the wild dandy, but his musical rendition is right on the mark. A veteran Giovanni in European houses, the versatile Danish powerhouse, in his American debut in the role, moves from the gorgeous tone colors in the exquisite love duet "La ci darem la mano," to the deep peal of a boisterous party host as revelers streams into his house.
Former Houston Opera Studio artist Nicole Heaston plays Zerlina, the ingenuous peasant bride who succumbs to Giovanni's wiles. During her playful moments, her voice sounds open and clear, especially when she begs husband Masetto (Derrick Parker) to forgive her for being tempted. She is less convincing when her soprano shrills in terror of being raped. Parker, an American bass-baritone and second-year Studio artist, offers a somewhat polished Masetto, but on occasion his voice sounds callow.
Though some critics have compared Pendatchanska to Maria Callas, the Bulgarian soprano doesn't quite measure up to the hype during her act one songs. But when she begs Ottavio to forgive her for postponing their marriage, she hits her stride; her covered tones open up, gliding through scales and negotiating facile turns. In his duets and solos, Fedderly sings Ottavio with full range and mellifluous compassion. Armstrong shines as Elvira, the romantic everywoman we all want to rescue.
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Excitement mounts during the ensembles, when Giovanni's accusers pit themselves against him in will and voice. When Anna, Ottavio and Elvira unmask themselves after crashing his party, the trio squares off against the enemy in a gorgeous harmony of rebuff. Leporello, Zerlina and Masetto join in, forming a sextet after the Don gets dragged down to Hell in the final scene. The group condemns the poor sinner to an eternity with Proserpina and Pluto while rejoicing in a satisfying revenge.
Silverstein's handling of scene changes is commendable in a production that boasts scads of them throughout a mere two acts. All progresses without interruption as the featured soloist or ensemble carries on in front of the curtain. Lighting designer Ken Billington ably instills dread with judicious use of lightning bolts. But the final scene's conflagration is disappointing. Here, the Commendatore's statue wills the two-timing rogue to descend through the floor into the bowels of Hell. The production crew has to conjure smoke and flames using what appears to be dry ice. The effect is okay, but a little too cool to simulate the flames of Hell.
In Mozart's day the sexual overtones in Don Giovanni carried a corresponding political message. But today the opera carries a much simpler and, no doubt, wider appeal. In this era our predilection for political scandal feeds some kind of primordial thirst. Watching scoundrels such as Giovanni get what they deserve is not unlike hungrily devouring the sexual exploits of reigning politicians before they fall from grace, if they fall at all.
Houston Grand Opera performs Don Giovanni at the Wortham Theater Center's Brown Theater, Texas Avenue at Smith Street, through Sunday, November 14. Evening performances start at 7:30 p.m. Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. Tickets: $22-$182. Call (713)227-ARTS for information.