BWW Reviews: Opera in the Height's DON GIOVANNI is Engaging Fun
Based on the legends of Don Juan, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's DON GIOVANNI is a true staple in the operatic repertoire and is the tenth most-performed opera worldwide. The opera is often considered to be a dramma giocoso, which means that it mixes serious drama with comedy to create a melodramatic plot; however, Mozart catalogued the work as an opera buffa, or comic opera. Houston's Opera in the Heights production highlights the humor of the piece and thrills with skillful performances.
This is my second experience with the much adored opera, and I find that this score and this plot just don't do anything for me. The often-repetitive libretto causes the plot to drag its feet, making the audience sit through well-performed arias that essentially say the same things over and over. Yet, to give this opera a fresh update, Stephanie Havey sets DON GIOVANNI in the United Sates in the early 1960s. This choice creates a unique visual aesthetic for the show that breathes a little bit of fresh life into the stale piece, but some of her choices in stage direction work against Lorenzo Da Ponte's libretto. For example, Stephanie Havey first introduces Donna Anna to audiences during the overture, dressing the character in a short red dress and having her gallivanting. She dances seductively with men, drinks Jack Daniels straight from the bottle, and seems to be willingly seduced by Don Giovanni. Therefore, towards the end of Act I, when Donna Anna sings to Don Ottavio, her betrothed, about Don Giovanni's attempt to rape her, the audience sees her not as an innocent but as a liar. This makes Donna Anna's motivations seem as abhorrent as Don Giovanni's licentious escapades and ever-growing list of women who have fallen prey to his libidinous lust.
Baritone Brian K. Major plays Don Giovanni as a stereotypical American gangster. Clad in a fedora, overcoat, and suit, it is his appearance of power and control that is used to seduce the women of the world. He sings the role with clarity and strength, delivering rousing performances throughout the production.
Justin Hopkins' Leporello is undoubtedly loyal to Don Giovanni, following the man all over the world and performing any task set before him. His rich Bass-Baritone instrument is well suited and exploited for the role.
Soprano Michelle Johnson owns the night as Donna Anna, singing the role with pristine precision and sumptuous beauty. She doesn't characterize Donna Anna as this overly depressed and lost innocent though. Her Donna Anna is saddened by her father's death and is seeking revenge. She is also sexually aware and unafraid to utilize her own sultry sexuality to achieve her goals.
Singing Donna Elvira, Julia Cramer is often hilarious as she chases Don Giovanni in hopes that he will settle with her so she can forgive him for breaking her heart. With a gorgeous soprano instrument she commands attention and warms the hearts of the audiences with her comical, melodramatic zeal.
With a shimmering tenor voice, Zach Averyt sings Don Ottavio with rich control. He plays the character with sincerity, making him entirely devoted to appeasing his beloved Donna Anna.
Mezzo-Soprano Cecilia Duarte sings the naïve Zerlia with vibrant energy, making her an appealing and comical figure that gets mixed up in Don Giovanni's wanton games. Opposite her as Masetto, Trevor Martin creates a greaser who quickly becomes jealous of his soon to be wife's sudden and impenetrable attraction to another man. Utilizing his powerful, robust baritone instrument, he sings with tangible gusto.
As Il Commendatore, Daymon Passmore uses his distinguished bass voice to portray a character that is stalwart physically, mentally, and morally.
Costume Design by Dena Scheh gives us a wide breadth of distinctive characterizations. She utilizes fashions of the last 50s and early 60s to create classes of people. Donna Anna and her friends wear the trendy clothing of the mainstream culture. Don Giovanni and his supporters are dressed in ways that are reminiscent of Denzel Washington's costumes when he played Frank Lucas in American Gangster. Masetto is clad in rockabilly/greasers garb with rolled up jeans, pearl-snaps, and a leather jacket. These idiosyncratic choices help the audience visually separate the characters from one another and adds an interesting visual appeal to the production.
Even though it is an opera that I personally do not like, Opera in the Heights is presenting a fun and engaging production of DON GIOVANNI. I find some of Stephanie Havey's directorial choices troubling, but she and her cast commit to them and create a production of DON GIOVANNI unlike any other. If for nothing else, this one is definitely worth checking out for the deftly delightful vocal performances.
Running Time: Approximately three and half hours with one intermission.
DON GIOVANNI, produced by Opera in the Heights, runs at Lambert Hall, 1703 Heights Boulevard, Houston, 77008 now through February 9, 2014. The remaining performances are February 7 and 8 at 7:30 p.m. and February 9 at 2:00 p.m. For tickets and more information please visit http://operaintheheights.org or call (713) 861-5303.
Photos by Amitava Sarkar. Courtesy of Opera in the Heights.
Michelle Johnson and chorus.
Michelle Johnson (Donna Anna) and Zach Averyt (Don Ottavio).
Justin Hopkins (Leporello) and Julia Cramer (Donna Elvira).
Brian K. Major (Don Giovanni) at the end.