19 April 2015

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart – DON GIOVANNI (J.C. Cha, A. Lau, A. Loutsion, H. Clark, D. Blalock, J. Cherest, D. Weigel, B. LeClair; North Carolina Opera, 18 April 2015)

IN PERFORMANCE: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's DON GIOVANNI at North Carolina Opera, April 2015 [Photo © by North Carolina Opera]WOLFGANG AMADEUS MOZART (1756 – 1791): Don Giovanni, K. 527J.C. Cha (Don Giovanni), Adam Lau (Leporello), Alexandra Loutsion (Donna Anna), Hailey Clark (Donna Elvira), David Blalock (Don Ottavio), Jennifer Cherest (Zerlina), David Weigel (Masetto), Benjamin LeClair (Commendatore); Chorus and Orchestra of North Carolina Opera; Timothy Myers, conductor [Crystal Manich, Stage Director; Lighting Design by Tláloc López-Watermann; A.J. Fletcher Opera Theater, Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts, Raleigh, North Carolina; Saturday, 18 April 2015]

It is difficult to imagine the impression that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s and Lorenzo da Ponte’s Don Giovanni must have made on audiences who witnessed its first performances in Prague in 1787. In this remarkable score, Mozart not only created a psychologically-nuanced context for a cultural icon—one that remains compelling even after 228 years—but also facilitated in a single work the musical transition from the Eighteenth Century to the Nineteenth. In Don Giovanni, the very modern concepts of condemnation and redemption collide frighteningly, the ramifications of one man’s machinations upsetting a chivalrous social order in ways both tangible and barely perceptible. Dramatically, the great marvel of Don Giovanni is that every character in the opera is an enigma. Is the title character an unrepentant lecher with one foot over the threshold of hell from the start or an inexplicably complex antihero who merely plays the rôle dictated to him by the society in which he participates? Are Anna, Elvira, and Zerlina his victims or his partners in a complicated dance that blurs the boundaries of morality? Is Leporello a willing accessory to his master's nefarious activities or a guileless servant following orders? These are questions with which any production of Don Giovanni must contend, and successful performances convey to the audience discernible aspects of the enigmatic metaphysical dimension of the opera that inspired E.T.A. Hoffmann to write in his Don Juan of 'the conflict of human nature with those unknown diabolical forces that, in surrounding it, ultimately spell its ruin.' Staged in the intimate space of the 600-seat A.J. Fletcher Opera Theater, North Carolina Opera's Don Giovanni peered very deeply into the tantalizing abyss of the opera's dramatic confrontations without being lost in the vortex of well-intentioned but misguided efforts at giving the characters recognizably modern sensibilities. Perhaps no other composer and librettist in operatic history more memorably and meaningfully gave characters in extremis sympathetic humanity than Mozart and da Ponte, and North Carolina Opera's production facilitated unprejudiced interaction with the characters and their motivations. Thoughtful and detailed, the performance nonetheless invited the involvement of the observer's imagination. Don Giovanni is a more known quantity to the people of Raleigh in 2015 than it was to the music-loving citizens of Prague in 1787, but North Carolina Opera's production enabled the genius and erudition of Mozart's and da Ponte's creation to illuminate the auditorium as though the ink were still wet on Mozart’s manuscript.

In her management of North Carolina Opera’s 2014 semi-staged performance of Dvořák’s Rusalka, Stage Director Crystal Manich revealed herself to be an innovative director of opera for whom invention does not equate with intrusion. Her direction of Don Giovanni was bold, sometimes daringly so, but always respectful of both composer and librettist. Even at its most fanciful, Ms. Manich’s concept of the opera was undeviatingly anchored in Mozart’s music and da Ponte’s words. The interplay among characters, enhanced by Tláloc López-Watermann’s wonderfully focused, natural lighting designs, was insightfully presented as the impetus for the text rather than a reaction to it, and stage action never impeded or distracted from singing. The rich hues and whimsical but flattering costume designs, originally created for Michigan Opera Theatre and adapted for North Carolina Opera's performances by Denise Schumaker, conjured an atmosphere of Wildean decadence that was bizarrely compatible with the opera’s sultry suggestiveness, and the set designs of Erhard Rom aptly placed the action in an idealized Eighteenth Century. Sondra Nottingham's wigs and makeup were stars of the production in their own right. Though the audience reveled in the production’s humor, much of which was genuinely funny [the pantomimic representation of the nationalities of Giovanni's conquests as cataloged by Leporello was hilarious, the Turkish stand-in donning a turban, and the fabulously buxom German lass munching on a pretzel], the comedy did not compromise the impact of the opera's fiery denouement. Many far more lavish productions of Don Giovanni have failed to serve the opera as well as North Carolina Opera's presentation: in this performance, Mozart's and da Ponte's description of the opera as a 'dramma giocoso' was reflected in all that transpired on stage.

The music of Don Giovanni challenges every singer and musician assembled to perform it, and a particular delight of North Carolina Opera’s performance was the strength of the foundation provided by the NCO Orchestra and Chorus. Mozart made great demands on the brasses and woodwinds, not least in his proto-Wagnerian music for the spectral Commendatore in Act Two, and the NCO players delivered their parts with stirring brio. String textures were occasionally less than ideally clean, but the mercurial writing in the Overture and ensembles was mostly brought off winningly. With Timothy Myers in the pit, the deftly-sprung rhythms of the playing were not surprising. The conductor’s understanding of Mozart repertory is instinctive, and he paced Don Giovanni with the authority of one who knows not only every note of the score but also the meaning of every word of the libretto. The cleverness of Ms. Manich’s direction was heightened by Maestro Myers’s witty accompaniment of secco recitatives, his extraordinary musicality shining in every passage and exuberantly-resolved cadence. He had no fear of grand Romantic gestures in scenes like Donna Anna’s accompagnato and aria ‘Or sai chi l'onore,’ and under his baton the poised, quintessentially Classical pages of the score never seemed coy or saccharine. Directed by Ben Blozan, the choristers also contributed positively to the performance, singing lustily but accurately. Primarily decorative until the opera’s penultimate scene, the chorus's singing as Don Giovanni was dragged to his infernal reward was rightfully commanding. In his work with North Carolina Opera, Maestro Myers has garnered a reputation for mastery of a broad repertory, but even among great achievements his conducting of Don Giovanni was especially successful.

It is unfortunate that in recent years the notion has developed that Mozart’s operas require a singular style of singing. Compared to the operas of Haydn, Mysliveček, Salieri, Dittersdorf, Holzbauer and other relative contemporaries, Mozart’s operas are unquestionably unique in terms of instrumental support of vocal lines, harmonic progression, and melodic distinction, but it is illustrative to note the numbers of singers of generations past who, despite being remembered as masters of other repertory, excelled in Mozart rôles. There is no finer Don Giovanni on records than Giuseppi Taddei, a singer who would now be unlikely to be assigned the part. Birgit Nilsson was a Donna Anna who could not be ignored, and both Dame Joan Sutherland and Leontyne Price were unforgettable in the rôle. Two of the Twentieth Century’s greatest Mozarteans, Elisabeth Grümmer and Edith Mathis, ladies so different in timbre and vocal production, epitomized the best tradition of Mozart singing, one embodied by a commitment to singing the music full-on. Eschewing the small-scaled, period-practice vocalism that has become fashionable in Mozart repertory, North Carolina Opera’s production honored the legacies of Mozart singers of bygone eras by allowing the well-chosen cast to sing their parts without self-conscious efforts at conforming to some arbitrary notion of how a Mozart singer ought to sound.

Anchoring the young, attractive cast, bass Benjamin LeClair was a Commendatore of dignity and power whose voice seethed with shock and anger in the Act One scene 'Lasciala, indegno, batiti meco!' Effective enough when the Commendatore’s voice was heard from off stage, the echo-chamber resonance applied to Mr. LeClair’s singing of 'Don Giovanni! a cenar teco m'invitasti' in the Act Two finale obscured the singer’s pitch, but he was a robust presence in the drama. As Masetto, Asheville-bred baritone David Weigel was appropriately giddy in his Act One duet with Zerlina, 'Giovinette, che fate all'amore,' but his high spirits quickly crashed back down to earth when Don Giovanni’s designs on Zerlina became obvious. Mr. Weigel sang Masetto’s aria 'Ho capito, Signor, sì,’ passionately, and he launched the Act One Finale with a steely account of 'Presto, presto, pria ch'ei venga.' He manfully suffered abuse from Don Giovanni in Act Two, and his vocalism, sometimes blunt and forceful rather than polished, was unfailingly effective. A tall, brawny fellow with a contagious smile, Mr. Weigel was perfectly matched with soprano Jennifer Cherest, whose perky, petite Zerlina was charm personified. In the first phrases of 'Giovinette, che fate all'amore,' Ms. Cherest’s intonation sounded uncertain, but her singing quickly took on the warmth, elation, and specificity of her acting. She joined with Giovanni in a seductive account of the famous duettino 'Là ci darem la mano,’ and she was the rare Zerlina who made something both touching and amusing of the aria 'Batti, batti, o bel Masetto,' her technique little challenged by the coloratura and ascent to top B. In Act Two, Ms. Cherest impressed both in ensembles and in her bright-toned singing of 'Vedrai, carino.' Her chemistry with Mr. Weigel was endearing, and it was fantastic to hear a voice more substantial than the usual airy (and air-headed) soubrette in Zerlina’s music.

The ardent, euphonious singing of North Carolina-born tenor David Blalock made the omission of Don Ottavio's sublime aria 'Dalla sua pace la mia dipende,' composed for renowned tenor Francesco Morella for the 1788 Viennese première of Don Giovanni, particularly regrettable despite its textual legitimacy. A handsome man whose face can convey a broad spectrum of emotions, Mr. Blalock made Ottavio a man of action who viewed Giovanni as a dangerous rival. In the Act One scene and duet with Donna Anna, his voice rang out confidently in the almost Verdian pledges of vengeance that crown 'Che giuramento, oh terror!’ Then, in the masqueraders' trio in the Act One finale, 'Protegga il giusto cielo,' he lovingly blended his voice with those of Anna and Elvria. In Act Two, many tenors are grateful merely to survive the aria 'Il mio tesoro intanto,' its punishing tessitura centered in the passaggio and repeated Fs at the top of the staff stretching their techniques to the breaking point, but Mr. Blalock excelled: phrasing with elegance, he was an Ottavio in whom poetry and heroism were combined in equal measure.

Hailey Clark, another native North Carolinian, portrayed a Donna Elvira at her wits’ end and, as Don Black and Christopher Hampton wrote in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Sunset Boulevard, ‘too much in love to care.’ Making her entrance in Act One with an entourage, this Donna Elvira was slightly ridiculous but engrossingly touching. Ms. Clark used the roulades and climactic top As in 'Ah! fuggi il traditor!' as springboards for launching Elvira’s emotions into the laps of listeners, and the security of her singing of 'Non ti fidar, o misera' provided the energy that made the quartet a highlight of the performance. In both 'Bisogna aver coraggio, o cari amici miei!' and the masqueraders' trio, 'Protegga il giusto cielo,' in the Act One finale, Ms. Clark sang stunningly, the voice soaring above the turbulent orchestrations. In Act Two, she shone in the trio with Giovanni and Leporello, 'Ah! chi mi dice mai, quel barbaro dov'è,’ and the wonderful sextet, 'Sola, sola in bujo loco palpitar il cor mi sento.’ In the scene written for Caterina Cavalieri for the opera’s first production in Vienna, Ms. Clark unleashed a tsunami of emotions in the recitative 'In quali eccessi, o Numi.' Then, her traversal of the aria 'Mi tradì quell'alma ingrata' was like a bolt of lightning: suddenly, the clouds parted, and Elvira’s innate goodness was apparent. Bursting in on Giovanni’s gluttonous feast in the opera’s finale, Ms. Clark’s voicing of 'L'ultima prova dell'amor mio' was heartfelt and direct. A charge of dramatic electricity coursed through the auditorium whenever Ms. Clark was on stage, but the true glory of her Elvira was musical. She had every note of the part in her voice and knew how to place and project every tone with ideal impact. Hers was an Elvira to be loved, not pitied: whatever trouble partnering such a firebrand might cost him, Giovanni seemed a fool for having discarded such a woman as Ms. Clark portrayed.

The Donna Anna of Alexandra Loutsion was very much a lady of noble bearing, one whose grief and indignation were expressed in outpourings of darkly beautiful singing. In her opening scene in Act One, her singing of 'Non sperar, se non m'uccidi, ch'io ti laschi fuggir mai' was like flood waters tumbling over the top of a dam, her unflappability in rising repeatedly to top G signaling her suitability for the rôle. Duetting with Don Ottavio in 'Che giuramento, oh terror!' inspired Ms. Loutsion to singing of momentous intensity that grew even more compelling in the soprano’s singing of the accompagnato 'Don Ottavio, son morta!' and aria 'Or sai, chi l'onore rapire a me volse.' The aria’s repeated top As held no terrors for Ms. Loutsion: like Ms. Clark, she had all of her part’s notes in the voice and knew it. Her vocal line in the masqueraders' trio took her to glistening top B♭s, and her flinty solidity on high lent her singing in the Act One finale formidable histrionic thrust. ‘Crudele? Ah no, mio bene!’ and ‘Non mi dir, bell'idol mio,’ Anna’s accompagnato and aria in Act Two, are feared by sopranos—or, rather, by sopranos who, unlike Ms. Loutsion, are not completely capable of singing them. The aria’s coloratura is difficult even for a singer of Ms. Loutsion’s gifts, but she conquered both the bravura writing and the profusion of top As and B♭s. Dramatically, the sincerity of the soprano’s acting was refreshing. Greater variety of dynamics would occasionally have been welcome, but there are few pleasures in opera greater than hearing a sizable voice like Ms. Loutsion’s in full cry in music as enthralling as Donna Anna’s.

From the first notes of ‘Notte e giorno faticar, per chi nulla sa gradir’ in Act One, Adam Lau was a Leporello who had the audience in the palms of his hands. More impish opportunist than partner in crime, Mr. Lau’s Leporello was an ideal foil for Don Giovanni. There were both great fun and a suggestion of a tender effort at dissuading Elvira from pursuing Giovanni in his performance of the aria 'Madamina! il catalogo è questo.’ He caressed the melody of the andante con moto, 'Nella bionda egli ha l'usanza di lodarla la gentilezza,' gently flattering Ms. Clark’s becomingly blonde Elvira. His patter in ensembles was barnstorming, and every vocal gesture was matched by physical comedy worthy of Buster Keaton. In Leporello’s Act Two duet with Giovanni, 'Eh via, buffone, eh via, non mi seccar,' Mr. Lau sang splendidly, and his mimicry of Giovanni in serenading Donna Elvira was sidesplitting. His voicing of the aria 'Ah, pietà! Signori miei!’ crackled with fear and frustration, and his address to the Commendatore’s monument in 'O statua gentilissima' was artfully-phrased. Mozart and da Ponte wrote the rôle of Leporello so magically that a good singer can easily walk away with the laurels in a performance of Don Giovanni. The high quality of his colleagues’ portrayals meant that Mr. Lau shared the laurels, but in both voice and demeanor he was a world-class Leporello.

Jeongcheol Cha’s Don Giovanni dominated the performance as any Giovanni should but so few manage to do. In the opera’s opening scene, Giovanni’s carnal appetite was apparent in his pursuit of Anna, but there was a hint of genuine remorse in response to his slaying of the Commendatore. So different was the man who wooed Zerlina in 'Là ci darem la mano' that this Giovanni might have been thought to be bipolar. Mr. Cha beguiled and deceived with consummate arrogance in the quartet with Anna, Elvira, and Ottavio, and his singing of the quicksilver aria 'Fin ch'han dal vino calda la testa' was a model of dramatic bluster tempered by vocal control. His voicing of 'Riposate, vezzose ragazze!' in the Act One finale was similarly governed by absolute vocal surety. Mr. Cha’s account of 'Eh via, buffone, eh via, non mi seccar!' at the start of Act Two was bracing, the singer’s crisp diction—a trait that all of his colleagues shared, much to the benefit of the performance—increasing the vibrancy of his vocalism. The celebrated canzonetta 'Deh vieni alla finestra, o mio tesoro' simply could not have been more wonderfully sung. As Giovanni’s destiny began to unravel, Mr. Cha’s singing only grew more granitic. In the aria 'Metà di voi quà vadano' and the sublime sextet, his voice radiated unwavering determination. Still, in 'Già la mensa è preparata' in the penultimate scene, his defiance and self-satisfaction were boundless. Projecting tones like missiles, this Giovanni battled supernatural retribution for his misdeeds to the very end: this was a man so accomplished at escaping justice that it seemed that even the flames of hell might be unable to grasp him. A few moments of struggle in rapid passagework were easily forgiven, and Mr. Cha must be congratulated for having recovered from a hard fall without missing a note. It is inexplicable that many of the world’s most renowned opera houses cast Don Giovanni with singers with familiar names who muddle the music embarrassingly when a singer like Mr. Cha sings the rôle so ingratiatingly.

Every production of Don Giovanni must choose a path to follow into the thicket of interpretation that has grown on the fertile ground of the score since its first performance in 1787. North Carolina Opera’s production traveled a route that started and ended where any operatic journey should logically remain: in the composer’s music and the librettist’s words. The audience learned from North Carolina Opera’s Don Giovanni that Eighteenth-Century Spain was an environment in which one’s honor had to be guarded more closely than any fiscal treasure, but the music-making was certainly magnificent!