BWW Reviews: DON GIOVANNI Seduces St. Louis!

BWW Reviews: DON GIOVANNI Seduces St. Louis!

Don Giovanni

by W. A. Mozart
Libretto by Lorenzo da Ponte

Union Avenue Opera
July 10, 2015

This review was first published by KDHX, 88.1 St. Louis.

George Bernard Shaw, as a youth, taught himself to play the piano by struggling through the score of the overture to Mozart's Don Giovanni. This was the seed which led him ultimately to a career for some years as London's finest and most readable music critic. It left him with a great love for -- and a profound understanding of -- Don Giovanni. Later he was to include specific passages from this opera as incidental music in the "Don Juan" portion of his play Man and Superman. And as a critic he said some very true things about Mozart's works:

You cannot say, "Here is an entirely new vein of musical art, of which nobody ever dreamt before Mozart."
but,

There are operas and symphonies . . . of his on which you can put your finger and say, "Here is the final perfection in this manner; and nobody, whatever his genius may be, will ever get a step further on these lines."

The Union Avenue Opera has opened a fine production of Don Giovanni, which has satisfied all my Shavian hungers for this work.

From the moment that Scott Schoonover raised his baton to invoke that incredible athletic overture it was re-confirmed to me that Don Giovanni is indeed the zenith of 18th Century opera. And yet there are definite foreshadowings of 19th Century Romanticism-of Wagner and Beethoven. Strange chords and dark moody passages appear in the overture that are to come back to truly haunt us in the grand final melodrama of Giovanni's damnation.

There is a curious frisson throughout the opera between these two centuries. There are, from the 18th Century, the prescribed structures, definite arias and recitative, the balance, the repetition, the decoration, the accessible lovely melody. There are the unsurpassed duets, trios, quartets and sextets.

And into just what genre does Don Giovanni fall? There are moments of low -- even bawdy comedy, as when Leporello, Giovanni's servant, enumerates the long catalogue of his master's feminine conquests. There is the rather naughty, but oh, so sweetly and innocently erotic guessing game when the peasant girl Zerlina promises her fiancé Masetto that she has just the thing to soothe his battered body -- something she always carries with her. No, it's not what you're thinking, it's her loving heart.

And then, at the end, we find that all of Giovanni's seductions (about which we have had such entertaining fun all evening) become the cause of his damnation to a fiery and eternal Hell. It's as if this opera can't quite decide whether it's a riotous opera buffa or a tragic opera seria. But what the hell? It's got the very best of both worlds. It's a marvel!

As is its wonderful common practice Union Avenue Opera has found superlative voices for this production.
Giovanni is sung by Galen Scott Bower. He's an appropriately handsome fellow with a fine and expressive baritone, and he shines in his mandolin serenade and in his aria calling for Leporello to bring all the girls he can find to his party. But Bower's voice has a tendency to run out of steam at the end of a phrase or on his very lowest notes (or in rapid-fire lyrics) where he dwindles into almost a hush.

Anthony Webb sings Don Ottavio, Donna Anna's fiancé. His is a lovely tenor voice indeed, and in one aria he shows quite astonishing breath-control in a long, long crescendo decorated with a final classical flourish.
Gina Galati gives a very polished performance as Donna Elvira, one of Giovanni's abandoned conquests. She confidently masters arias with complex coloratura elements.

Geoffrey Cox is the Commendatore, who is killed by Don Giovanni in the first scene, but who returns as "the stone guest" at the end. His arrival then is announced by a mighty pounding at the door -- as if Fate itself were demanding entry. Cox's beautiful, powerful bass voice, in a passage filled with repeated driving iterations of the same note, seems like a continuation of that mighty pounding.

Masetto, the peasant bridegroom, is strongly and beautifully sung by E. Scott Levin. He carries off this bass role with the lightness and flexibility of a tenor.

The very lovely Karina Brazas sings Zerlina. This is a performance of sweetness, clarity, great beauty and innocence. She is so at ease in the lovely melodies of her duets with Giovanni and Masetto. In her highest notes there is the purity of a flute.

But Amy Murray, as Donna Anna, vocally shines above all these fine singers. Hers is a truly gorgeous voice. Her "rage" aria is astonishing in its power and purity. Miss Murray makes it all seem so easy! Brava! Brava!
Anna's Act I duet with Ottavio is a wonder of beauty; the dynamics of these two singers seem preternaturally synchronized. And the trio in which Anna, Ottavio and Elvira beg for Heaven's protection before entering Giovanni's masked ball is splendidly lovely.

But I'm not done with the cast: For me, Neil Nelson as Leporello, Giovanni's servant, almost steals the show. His flawless bass is quite relaxed and at home in the very lowest passages. And such strength! In an early aria his "No, no, no, no, no, no, no!"s were stabbingly powerful.* And Neil Nelson is an actor! He's a master of comedy-unashamedly embracing the lowest of that genre-and he's so physically graceful on stage. He blesses this character with expressive eyes, a brilliant smile and grand gestures. A very loud "Bravo" for him.

The attractive set is by Kyra Bishop. She gives us elegant marble pillars, walls and arches which yield a variety of acting spaces-though sight-lines are quite limited at the sides of the audience.

Lighting is by Patrick Huber. It is lovely and supportive of moods, but it's usually (as lighting should be) unobtrusive.

Teresa Doggett again costumes the show. She places it in the 19th Century (a perfectly valid option -- almost a coin-toss, given Mozart's puzzling blend of the two centuries). Ms. Doggett gives us some beautiful bustled gowns for the ladies. I had a problem, though, with Don Giovanni's clothing. He wears what resembles a Civil War tunic with trousers too full and loose for a vain seducer. And he is encumbered with an awkward red sash around his waist that seems (like one of Giovanni's over-enamored ladies) intent on pulling down his pants. All in all he has a rather disheveled look (which was augmented by his long hair frequently falling into his face). Now I am quite ready to see a seducer en déshabillé leaping out of a bedroom window, shirt-tails flying. But the elegant Giovanni should not be disheveled.

Stage director Jon Truitt handles the large cast quite effectively. One lovely touch is the addition of several live "statues" throughout the opera. These actors stand utterly motionless on pedestals. Ms. Doggett has quite impressively transformed them into marble. The folds of the women's gowns in particular are startlingly convincing. From scene to scene these "statues," moving with perfect stony deliberation, rearrange themselves and their pedestals. And at the climactic ending they become Mozart's demons and assist the Commendatore in dragging Giovanni down to Hell. It's a brilliant and effective conceit.

Mozart wrote a sextet to serve as finale to his opera. Here the surviving principals deliver the moral: "Such is the end of the evildoer." In the past this sextet was often omitted by conductors. They felt the opera should end with the death of its central character. Recently, however, the final sextet has been revived. I was disappointed that Union Avenue chose not to use this finale; they end the show with Giovanni's plunge into Hell.

That choice gives a fine, dramatic ending, but it places the opera with its foot firmly in the door of 19th Century Romanticism. Giovanni, like the Romantic hero-like the Nietzschean Superman -- indeed like Prometheus -- refuses to deny his all-powerful ego even if it means an eternity in Hell.

Were the final sextet to be used it would mean that the opera, after definitely dipping its toes into the 19th Century, would end once again in the 18th: a world of order and balance and morality.

I was looking forward to hearing that last lovely sextet.

Union Avenue Opera's Don Giovanni is a triumphant opening to their twenty-first season. It's full of musical delights for opera lovers.

It continues through July 18 at the Union Avenue Christian Church. For information visit www.UnionAvenueOpera.org.

____________

* It's surprising how many people keep saying "No, no, no, no no!" in this opera. I thought after a while that I was in the middle of the recent Greek plebiscite
____________.

Photos (c) Union Avenue Opera and John Lamb.

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From This Author Steve Callahan

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