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An Elvira to Match the Serial Seducer

Teatro Regio
06/27/2018 -  June 30*, July 4, 7, 2018
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Don Giovanni, K. 527
Carlos Alvarez (Don Giovanni), Erika Grimaldi*/Maria Grazia Schiavo (Donna Anna), Carmela Remigio (Donna Elvira), Juan Francisco Gatell (Don Ottavio), Mirco Palazzi (Leporello), Rocío Ignacio (Zerlina), Fabio Maria Capitanucci (Masetto), Gianluca Buratto (Il Commendatore)
Coro del Teatro Regio, Andrea Sacchi (Chorus master), Giannandrea Agnoletto (pianoforte), Orchestra del Teatro Regio, Daniele Rustioni (Conductor)
Michele Placido (Stage Director), Vittorio Borrelli (Revival), Maurizio Balò (Sets and costumes), Andrea Anfossi (lighting), Anna Maria Bruzzese (Choreography)

C. Alvarez, C. Remigio (© Ramella & Giannese/Edoardo Piva)

When one compares the ensemble of superlative historic opera recordings to present day singing, one notices a great improvement in diction. The great Viennese singers of the 50s and 60s, though great vocalists and interpreters, mar Mozart’s Italian operas with atrocious pronunciation, such as “qvesta“ and “qvella.” Though today’s top singers nearly without exception pronounce the various languages properly and certainly better than half a century ago, the style is a homogenized one and most often bland. With the demise of national schools of singing that defined opera and art song in the past, and due to today’s globalization and ease of travel, major international opera houses offer the diverse casts that sing in the new international “bland and neutral“ (or is it neutered?) style. That is why it is a treat to hear Mozart’s Italian operas in Italy, with a mostly Italian cast singing to an Italian-speaking audience. Why Mozart in particular? Because Mozart’s operatic repertoire are rich with recitatives, and these are probably more important dramatically than the arias. The characters are defined through their interpretation and acting, specifically in recitatives. Teatro Regio’s cast for Don Giovanni, the “opera of operas," as Richard Wagner called it, was mostly interpreted by Italians, supported by two Spaniards and an Argentinian. As predicted, the diction and acting were superlative. This was reinforced by a public who were capable, without twisting their necks to read surtitles, of grasping the humour and word play of Da Ponte’s exquisite libretto, possibly the greatest ever written.

The stage director was none other than actor and film director Michele Placido. His was a staging where all the characters had well-defined personalities, often different from those typically depicted. This was indeed a revelation, in particular the depiction of Donna Elvira. Often portrayed as a hapless victim, she was a strong-willed woman determined to get her man. All this was promptly communicated in her entrance aria, “Ah chi mi dice mai,” where she stylishly puffs a cigarette as she nervously strolls across the stage. Donna Anna, usually portrayed as hysterical, was anything but. She seemed more like an uptight malcontent. Don Ottavio, most often portrayed as a wimp, was a virile but sensitive man, ardently in love with Donna Anna. Zerlina, the ingénue, was less naive than often depicted. Masetto, often a rustic buffoon, was a virile protective bridegroom. Most impressive was the portrayal of DonGiovanni. This was no cerebral seducer, but rather a bully. A provincial nobleman, convinced of his deeply entrenched privileges, seduces because he can and is entitled to. He gratuitously stabs the Commendatore, deeming an old-fashioned duel too tiresome. Michele Placido’s insight as a veteran actor and director is evident throughout this attractive production. Rarely have I seen opera characters so quickly and cleverly transformed into fully-fledged, living and breathing human beings.

Vocally, the entire cast was near impeccable. Carlos Alvarez’s Don Giovanni and Carmela Remigio’s Donna Elvira dominated the cast. Other than the provocative well-defined portrayal, Remigio was a moving Elvira, endowed with a beautiful instrument and intense interiorized interpretation. Her “Mi tradi quell’alma ingrata” was passionately delivered, with emphasis on key phrases, such as “Misera Elvira, che contrasto d’affetti in sen ti nasce!” in the preceding recitative and “Ma, tradita e abbandonata, provo ancora per lui pietà” in the aria proper, that heightened her deft characterization.

Alvarez’s Alpha male Don Giovanni exuded an earthy sex appeal, one that would disarm some but repel others. This was precisely the beauty of Michele Placido’s staging. Alvarez’s “Deh, vieni alla finestra” was a model of charm. His emphasis on phrases such as “Davanti agli occhi tuoi, morir vogl’io” and “Tu ch’hai la bocca dolce più che il miele” in that aria made all the difference. In the recitative preceding his “Là ci darem la mano” duet with Zerlina, his enunciation of “...un nobil cavalier, qual io mi vanto, possa soffrir che quel visetto inzuccherato...” was at once disarmingly charming and brutal, making it clear this is a master trickster burlador, as Tirso de Molina, the author of the first literary work on Don Juan, called the serial seducer.

Erika Grimaldi’s Donna Anna was intriguing: an uptight noblewoman, unhappy with her destiny as dictated by her social standing and the epoch’s mores. Her passion for Don Giovanni seemed genuine until she discovered she wasn’t the seducer’s only love. She changes her outlook upon discovering Donna Elvira is her rival, and she learned from the latter the true nature of the man she loved. Suddenly, right after the quartet “Ah, ti ritrovo ancor, perfido mostro... Non ti fidar, o misera,” Grimaldi’s interpretation impressively changes. Her passion turns into rage and the “hysterical” dimension of her ensuing aria “Or sai che l’onor” magically makes sense. In her final “Non mi dir”, she manages to convey a fatalistic acceptance of her grief with a renouncement that insinuates she will never marry. She is aware she has known a passion that she will never again encounter. Her interpretation of “Non mi dir” was touching, almost heart-wrenching, despite some insecure high notes towards the end of the aria.

Juan Francisco Gatell’s Don Ottavio was impressive: elegant Mozartian style, secure high notes, perfect diction and interpretation. This Ottavio is a gentleman, refined and sensitive, devoted to Donna Anna, and certainly not the typically portrayed wimp. His interpretation of both “Dalla sua pace” and “Il mio Tesoro” was exemplary. Despite a beautiful timbre, Rocío Ignacio’s Zerlina was miscast. Hers is a robust lyric soprano that has previously portrayed Donna Anna, Alice Ford in Falstaff, and Micaëla in Carmen. Her voice is too big to play Zerlina. Nonetheless, she acted convincingly.

The choice casting of bass Mirco Palazzi as Leporello was an interesting one. Usually, Don Giovanni and his servant are either both baritones, both bass-baritones or both basses. For many stage directors, Leporello is Don Giovanni’s alter ego. Not so in this production; this Leporello is the Don’s unwilling accomplice, a recalcitrant vassal and even his moral judge. Opposite Alvarez’s bullying master, he is the long-suffering abused servant. Palazzi managed to convey all this through his meek posture. The contrast of his bass to Alvarez’s baritone works well and Palazzi’s lower register does justice to the comic dimension of the role. Daniele Rustioni conducted Teatro Regio’s orchestra with brio. His tempi were slower or faster in certain passages to accommodate the singers’ needs.

It is believed by some that in their depiction of Donna Anna, Donna Elvira and Zerlina, Mozart and Da Ponte describe three aspects of das Ewig-Weibliche or the Eternal Feminine. Indeed, it was after that ideal trinity of femininity that Offenbach created the three prototypes of womanhood in his masterpiece, Les Contes d’Hoffmann, tales inspired by the German Romantic poet and writer E.T.A. Hoffmann, who also wrote one of the most inspired Don Juan adaptations. Donna Anna the lofty, Donna Elvira the fragile, Zerlina the soubrette become Giulietta, Antonia and Olympia in Offenbach’s masterpiece. Some authors claim that Donna Anna, a character as strong as the master seducer, was his hope for salvation. By altering the balance between the three women in this production, a new dynamic is created. If one analyses the opera from that perspective, one is confused. With a robust lyric soprano as Zerlina in this production, there is no longer a soubrette. With a strong personality and a voice to match, Donna Elvira supplants Donna Anna as the higher most ideal of femininity. This is either a coincidence of casting or a deliberate choice by a stage director who has a predilection for Donna Elvira. In the latter, it is a revelation, especially with an interpreter as expressive as Carmen Remigio. If the former, it is a delightful coincidence.

Ossama el Naggar



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