Sing Hosanna and Jubilate, there is praise to be given. The first live performance of an opera in Houston since COVID-19 locked down every theater in town, which has cursed us for nine months and counting, is happening at the University of Houston Moores Opera Center with a strongly sung Don Giovanni, W.A. Mozart's evergreen masterwork from 1787.
(Unfortunately, only two performances are scheduled: Friday, November 6, and Saturday, November 7. Both at 7:30 p.m. There should be more, but we're grateful for what we have.)
The production, all safely configured for social distancing, is performed outside, staged in the Wilhemina Grove, the open quad facing the university's opera house. Wood chairs await, arranged like the final scene in Our Town, and there's a lovely grid of pendent lights overhead, which bathe the exterior orchestra section in soft moonlit glow. The stage is steel-girder industrial with two playing areas, so that when two characters interact or hold hands – and there's lots of touching specified in Lorenzo da Ponte's libretto about the libertine Don – the singers stand apart or reach out as if in contact. Overtly theatrical, this blocking works surprisingly well, because the singing is so damned good. The future of opera looks fresh and promising when these college kids are such pros.
The only downside to this outdoor experience is the amplification. The orchestra, heartily conducted by maestro Raymond Harvey, sounds tinny, like a '40s monaural recording from the RCA vaults. The singers, amplified too, come off better, thankfully. Their voices feel rich and deep.
Don Giovanni (baritone Evan Cooper) is opera's bad ass. This unrepentant libertine, bedding and seducing women at every opportunity, is sinuously sexy, albeit the ultimate male chauvinist pig. He has no redeeming social value other than the uncanny ability to get women into bed. Yet we grudgingly admire his nerve, suave technique, and unquenchable, unstoppable libido. There's no one in the world of opera like this sparky, spiky man about town. His little black book, kept assiduously by his toady of a valet, Leporello (bass Muhammad Salman), is a veritable tome, weighing pounds. His conquests are legendary, and Mozart keeps him in perpetual motion. When the Don pours on the charm, as in his balcony Serenade accompanied by mandolin, there's no better lullaby in all music.
The opera begins with a psychic slap as Giovanni attempts to rape classy Donna Anna (soprano Siwei Zhang), while harassed servant Leporello waits outside in the street. Her cries for help rouse her father, the imposing Il Commendatore (bass Aaron Oberlander), who is quickly murdered by the seducer. Anna vows revenge, enlisting her lapdog fiance, Don Ottavio (tenor Jesús Bravo). Although Giovanni escapes, he runs into previous conquest Donna Elvira (soprano Patty Holley), out for revenge after being abandoned, but who still loves the heartless philanderer. Escaping her clutches, he spies peasant Zerlina (soprano Michelle Girardot) with finance Masetto (bass Noah Boldt), celebrating their engagement. He embarks on another conquest, leaving poor Leporello, in Giovanni's clothes, to be beaten by the enraged mob. All of his dissolute ways catch up to him when he takes refuge in the cemetery where the statue of Anna's dead father accepts Giovanni's mocking invitation to dinner. In the final scene, scored with terrifying fury, the Commendatore arrives and, grasping his hand, drags the evil Giovanni into hell. The principals sing the moral while pointing accusing fingers at us: Beware and repent, this is what happens to very bad men.
Sitting too far away for a closeup, I couldn't tell if Cooper was a handsome Don, but he was a robust one, sailing around the small stage on constant libido boil, lean and lithe in his 18th-century red-and-black-striped garb. He sounded randy and ready for action. He positively purred his famous Serenade, and at all times was devilishly swashbuckling.
Donna Anna is one of the most difficult roles in all the rep, as are most of these roles – Mozart didn't make it easy on his singers – she must be full of furious coloratura as she swears vengeance against her father's murderer, then break hearts with plangent legato as she puts off, yet again, poor Ottavio and begs him to have patience until she sufficiently grieves. She must cover the scale in daunting roulades with full voice, leaping about like the most nimble mountaineer. Zhang has the pipes, for sure. Her rich soprano was commanding and regal. She sang like the daughter of this imposing Commendatore.
Bravo, as Anna's doormat lover, has a crystal Italianate tenor that's crisp and clean. It has clarity to cut through the orchestra and always sound fresh. The role is unforgiving, lying exposed far up in a tenor's stratosphere. Any hesitation, any wayward breath, any exertion, and the game's up. He maneuvered Mozart's tricky vocal line with grace and finesse. In the best of times, it's an impossible role to pull off. Slavishly following Anna on her quest for revenge, Ottavio must croon. Bravo certainly did.
A real ear-opener was Holley as Donna Elvira. She loves the cad but hates herself for falling for empty promises. With a voice oozing richness, she leaped over, around, and through Mozart's difficult, yet radiant filigree. Whether cursing or pleading, she gave this love-lorn woman a sympathetic heart we could hear. It was all in her voice.
The quarreling young lovers, eager to be jealous but equally hot to trot, were definitively performed by Girardot and Boldt. Both possess stage presence to spare and voices that made a lasting impression. These two positively sparkled and made quite a team. Oberlander boomed majestically as the marble statue.
Second-rate pimp Leporello, a role built for comedy, seems tailor-made for Salman. A sad sack vaudevillian, Leporello does the Don's dirty prep work. Salman, with agile bass, brought the mistreated servant to life. Jealous, jaundiced, yet proud that he works for such a remarkable bastard, Salman's singing was detailed in all the right ways. His Catalog aria, wherein he lists the thousands of Giovanni's conquests, was delightfully cringe-worthy. No one ever accused da Ponte of being politically correct.
Thom Guthrie's minimal set was handsomely embellished by numerous back-projected sepia lithographs that depict Spain's 18th century rococo milieu. But you don't need much when Mozart supplies all the atmosphere.
To the Moores Opera Center's credit, you wouldn't know this production was college-league. It is surprisingly good. One of the musical wonders of the world, Don Giovanni never ages. The rake's adventures forever fascinate. Is that because men never change?
Don Giovanni. Final performance Saturday, November 7 at 7:30 p.m. Wilhelmina Grove, University of Houston, 3333 Cullen. Except for Holley and Oberlander, who will sing Musetto, the Saturday cast is different from this review. For information, call 713-743-3009 or visit eventbrite.com/e/opera-in-the-grove-don-giovanni-live-in-person-performance-tickets-125059080075. $10-$20. Those unable to see the performance in person can watch live on the Moores Opera Center website or the Moores Opera Center’s Facebook page.