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Opera in the Heights's Don Giovanni Has Sass and Sexy Charm

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The setup: Over the years I've seen many productions of W.A. Mozart and Lorenzo Da Ponte's eternal masterpiece, Don Giovanni, but never one with so much sass and sexy charm as Opera in the Heights's. The young cast captures the work's comedic drama and shakes it vigorously. Maestro Enrique Carreón-Robledo and his very fine orchestra, sounding better than ever, rush headlong into the sublime score, beautifully balancing hellish fury, heartbreaking tenderness and the sinuous wayward ways of the profligate title character. (A special nod of thanks to harpsichordist Teruhiko Toda, who plays the continuo part as if singing himself.) If you've never seen Don Giovanni onstage, this is the production to see.

The execution: Rising opera director Stephanie Havey gives the tale of the fabled debauched Spaniard an invigorating makeover, updating the action to the '50s. The program notes say it's the '60s, but it's definitely the era of early Rat Pack, Balenciaga-like couture and rebels without a cause. I question a few of her choices. No matter how twisted the logic between "what is hidden and what is seen," surreal artist René Magritte is an odd visual metaphor for the world's greatest womanizer; and the elegant, prim Donna Anna would never, ever -- I repeat, never -- dance some hootchy-kootchy number and act all wild and crazy before her seduction by Giovanni in the first scene. She is a lady and would never party down in public. It's completely against her grain.

The most surprising update, thoroughly right and constantly entertaining, is the marvelously re-translated libretto into period slang. Catchy and breezy, "Time to party" and "Do I hear a rat" are entirely apt for this classic tale. Master wordsmith Da Ponte would heartily approve of this new buzz. (I'm guessing that director Havey is the author of the surtitles, but no credit is given in the program.)

The opera begins with a psychic boom as Giovanni attempts to rape classy Donna Anna (soprano Michelle Johnson), while harassed servant Leporello waits outside in the street. Her cries for help rouse her father, the imposing Il Commendatore (bass Daymon Passmore), who is quickly murdered by the seducer. Shell shocked, Anna vows revenge, enlisting her lapdog fiance, Don Ottavio (tenor Zach Averyt). Although Giovanni escapes, he runs into previous conquest Donna Elvira (soprano Julia Cramer), out for revenge after being abandoned, but who still loves the heartless philanderer. Escaping her clutches, he spies peasant Zerlina (mezzo Cecilia Duarte) with finance Masetto (baritone Trevor Martin), 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.

Giovanni is opera's ultimate bad-boy. An unrepentant seducer, he loves 'em and leaves 'em, an equal opportunity 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. One tantalizing musical phrase, one mandolin solo, one little touch is all he needs to conquer anyone. In a brilliant flourish during the famous "Catalog Aria," his servant Leporello (bass/baritone Justin Hopkins in a standout performance) lists all the hundreds of his master's conquests - young, old, blonde, redhead, rich, poor, fat, thin - while he pulls out one rolodex after another, flipping through the numerous card entries until they blur.

Baritone Brian K. Major, as Giovanni, is one smooth operator, in action and voice. While not as outwardly sexy as some more recent "barihunks" who sing the role, he easily compensates with a commanding voice that's agile and very easy on the ear. In his pseudo-pimp outfit of fur-trimmed car coat, under which is his concealed handgun, he cuts a dangerous figure. Major's Italian diction, like all the others, is crystal clear.

One of the most difficult roles in all the rep, Donna Anna, as this libretto's vernacular might say, is a ballbuster. She's got to be full of furious coloratura as she swears vengeance against her father's murderer, then break our 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. Mozart does not make any of this easy. Johnson has a rich velvet tone that is sumptuously regal. Although a few notes of Mozart's fireworks, especially in the uppermost regions, weren't as silky as hoped, she's a powerhouse performer. Her final showstopper, "Non mi dir," ("Don't call me cruel") her florid plea for his patience, was embellished with luster.

Averyt, her doormat lover, has a beefy tenor that is more robust than usual for Ottavio. 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. More siren than bell, Averyt sounded a trifle tight maneuvering Mozart's tricky vocal line. In the best of times, it's an impossible role to pull off. Slavishly following Anna on her quest for revenge, Ottavio must croon.

A real ear-opener was Cramer, as Donna Elvira. She loves the cad but hates herself for falling for empty promises. With a voice thick as honey, with shimmery highlights, 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 Duarte and Martin. She's got spunk and sparkle, he's got charisma. In pegged jeans and biker jacket, a cigarette perched behind his ear, Martin oozed rebel. They made quite a team. Passmore boomed majestically as the marble statue.

The undisputed star of the evening was Hopkins, as mistreated Leporello. A role built for comedy, Giovanni's hardscrabble servant should be second banana, but Hopkins steals every scene with vaudevillian lightness and incomparable singing. Talk about rounding out a character; he breathes Leporello. You're never sure what he's going to do, but never once do you doubt what he does. He does everything so right. He leans against the doorway as his master makes the moves on another female, and in that instant you think, yes, that's just the way Leporello would stand: jealous, jaundiced, yet proud that he works for such a remarkable bastard. His singing was as richly detailed as his characterization.

Rachel Smith's set design is simple and effective - a series of scrim panels that open like screen doors anchor a double flight of stairs. You don't need much when Mozart supplies all the atmosphere. Jim Elliott's lighting was best by far, imbuing each scene with just enough hint of moonlight or lamplight. Dena Scheh's costumes were a vintage wonderland of bowler hats, party gowns, and biker chic.

The verdict: Don Giovanni is one of the musical wonders of the world. It never gets old. OH's youthful update keeps the loveable rake alive and kicking. Treat yourself to his adventures. You may not repent, but you'll be changed for the better.

Don Giovanni. February 6, 7, 8, 9m. (The emerald cast, which includes Cassandra Black as Donna Anna, Adrian Rosas as Giovanni, Mackenzie Whitney as Donna Elvira, Kaitlyn Costello as Zerlina, and Justin Manalad as Masetto, performs February 7 and 8.) Opera in the Heights, 1703 Heights Boulevard. Purchase tickets online at operaintheheights.org or call 713-861-5303. $10-$55.

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