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Don Giovanni:HGO Mounts a Masterful Interpretation In This Tale of Lust and Sin

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Check out our interview with Adrian Eröd, who sings the title role.

The set-up: Opera is full of surprises, and their opera houses too. After a dim and dispirited production of the classic American musical Showboat, Houston Grand Opera shoots off fireworks in a return of the classically elegant Gören Järvefelt production of Mozart's masterpiece Don Giovanni (1787). With a cast of young, energetic, and beautifully voiced singers, who know their way around the stage as well as they do through this difficult but masterful score, Mozart sparkles and elevates as intended. Everything is right again at HGO.

The execution: While the Viennese had cooled toward his previous The Marriage of Figaro (another masterpiece in a lifetime of them), the Czechs of Prague took the opera into their blood. When Mozart arrived to conduct a performance during the run, he was feted and honored for his musical genius and was swiftly offered a commission to write a premiere for the city's new theater -- take that, you Viennese.

The subject of infamous Spanish libertine Don Juan was proposed, and Mozart, heady after the recent acclaim, jumped at the offer. With Lorenzo da Ponte again as his trusted librettist, basing the book upon Moliere's play and a now-forgotten Italian opera by Bertati, he set to work when he returned to Vienna. Between a slew of other pieces, the sublime Eine kliene Nachmusik among them, and the blow of his father's death, Giovanni premiered in Prague eight months later. It was a triumph. Although the Viennese remained unimpressed during the opera's run in the capital the following season, Mozart's mighty work leapt around the world like wildfire. This magnificent opera burns more brightly than ever, one of the superb achievements of man.

Mozart called Giovanni an opera buffa, and da Ponte labeled it "comic drama," and there's certainly lots of ironic fun in it, among the wailings and revenge so gloriously sung by the women seduced by this unrepentant profligate. Not least, of course, is the Don himself. Unlike Donna Elvira, who's conflicted in her love/hate toward her defiler, we, seduced by Mozart's music and da Ponte's wicked wit, are utterly charmed by this cad. He's one of opera's thoroughly bad boys, and we can't help ourselves in admiring his audacity, depravity, and chutzpah. In the very first scene he tries to rape another great lady of Spain, Donna Anna, is hauled into the street with her trying to unmask him and yelling for help, and then cold-heartedly kills her father, the Commandant, who's come to her rescue. What a beginning! His adventures are duly notated in his servant Leporello's "Catalog aria," where the Don's little black book of conquests -- well, not so little -- is itemized: fat ones, short ones, blonds and brunettes, "anyone in a skirt" he brags about his master, wanting to be just like him. "A thousand and three" in Spain alone.

The opera details Giovanni's last days of sexual adventure, trailed by his recent conquests and near-misses, all seeking revenge, until his dissolution inevitably runs its course. In a wonderful burst of heavenly revenge, after he has mocked the statue of Anna's father, the stone figure comes alive and drags him off to hell. All the principals come forward to the stage lights and confront us with the moral: this is what'll happen to you, they point at us accusingly, if you don't wise up and change your evil ways.

HGO supplies the vocal fireworks in a surfeit of riches, supplemented by the exemplary conducting of legendary Trevor Pinnock, one of music's leading authorities on early music. He keeps this work flowing with grace and power, letting it breathe where necessary or panting with abandon when appropriate. It's wonderfully shaded, and the ensembles are deftly detailed. Carl Friedrich Oberle's classically elegant production -- like an old lithograph of a faded Baroque opera house, all wood plank and bubbled plaster, is a feast for the eyes. Simple but elegant, it's high-end Ikea. Immaculately lit by Duane Schuler, this unit set comes alive as another character.

And what a feast for the ears. Younger than expected, the cast is well-nigh definitive. Austrian baritone Adrian Eröd, lithe and agile, sings a superb Giovanni, rich with tone and utterly believable in unmatched debauchery. As he trods his path toward destruction, his face grows pasty, with makeup smudged, black shirt torn, hair more greasy and disheveled. He commands the stage, and his formidable attitude of "noblesse oblige" is undeniable in this forceful portrayal. He makes an effortless seducer, playful and terribly dangerous.

Bass baritone Kyle Ketelsen, as buffo servant Leporello, matches him, a spot-on second banana. He whizzes through the tongue-twisting presto passages with alarming ease. Former HGO studio artist Amercian soprano Rachel Willis-Sörensen, as perpetual griever Donna Anna, will no longer be singing subsidiary roles. If she doesn't become a full-fledged diva after this appearance, there's no justice in opera. She is magnificent in this demandingly difficult role with those signature Mozart arias, the revenge "Or sai, chi l'onore," and the tender "Non mir dir," trying to appease her fiancé Don Ottavio to wait a bit longer while she sufficiently grieves. Her powerful voice, adeptly held in check by Pinnock, fills the Wortham with soft velvet and ringing steel. Be on the lookout, she's on the rise.

Russian soprano Veronika Dzhioeva, with two of her own scrumptious arias, turns the pathetic Donna Elvira into a nearly sympathetic role by the virtue of her dark and dreamy voice. Abandoned by the Don, she trails after him, first seeking revenge then flipping into acceptance. She wants this cad back. Her voice says it all.

Although Don Ottavio is given two of the most demanding tenor arias in all of opera, young Puerto Rican tenor Joel Prieto glides through them with amazing breath control and sweet, sweet tone. The character is a real puppy dog, content to wait until Anna comes around, and not fully believing that a nobleman such as Giovanni could be the beast she accuses him of being. Prieto's plangent singing conveys innocence and a young man's ardor, managing to make whipped Ottavio fully rounded and almost believable.

During his escapes, Giovanni runs into a peasant wedding and is stopped by the beauty of new bride Zerlina. He's found his next victim. Husband Masetto is not amused by the flirting but must bow to the nobleman's prerogative. Swedish soprano Malin Christensson has more than enough zest and vocal sheen to compensate for a less than roaring sound. She a lively flirt, and her small but shimmering voice cuts through the orchestra. She's most becoming and sprightly. American bass baritone Michael Sumuel, as outraged Masetto, could cut through Wagner with heft to spare. Naive, Masetto is beaten by Giovanni when he hands over his guns, but, lying wounded, is quick to forgive his wandering bride. Sex as medicine. His deeply svelte bass conveys compassion and passion.

American bass Morris Robinson, appearing concurrently as stoic Joe in Showboat, who gets to sing the immortal "Ol' Man River," is terrifyingly commanding as the living statue of the Commendatore. He booms out his pronouncements of doom with thunderous clarity and chilling finality. The verdict: Mozart (and da Ponte's) radiant masterpiece about unbridled libido and the wages of sin receives an equally masterful interpretation in HGO's sophisticated staging. No matter what the Viennese thought about it, Don Giovanni is a pinnacle of operatic art. Come to think about it, it's the pinnacle of any art. HGO does it proud. Mozart's musical last days of sexual outlaw Don Giovanni seduces through February 10 at Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas. Purchase tickets online at houstongrandopera.org or call 713-228-6737. $20-$390.

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