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Gentlemen’s Night

Severance Hall
03/19/2011 -  & March 22, 24, 27, 2011
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Don Giovanni
Simon Keenlyside (Don Giovanni), Ruben Drole (Leporello), Eva Mei (Donna Anna), Afred Muff (The Commendatore), Shawn Mathey (Don Ottavio), Malin Hartelius (Donna Elvira), Martina Janková (Zerlina), Reinhard Mayr (Masetto)
Enrico Cacciari (fortepiano), The Cleveland Opera Orchestra and Chorus, Franz Welser-Möst (Conductor)
Verb Ballets, Margaret Carison (Director)
Robert Porco (Director), Julia Mathews (Cleveland Production Staging), John S. Bukaia, Rolf Glittenberg (Set Design), Marianne Glittenberg (Costume Design), Stefano Giannetti (Choreography), Jürgen Hoffman, Christopher Shick (Lighting Design)

(© Roger Mastroianni)

Don Giovanni completes Cleveland’s triple bill of the Mozart/Da Ponte operas which began in 2009. The original Zurich Opera production was by Sven-Eric Bechtolf and was adapted for the dimensions of the stage here. Severance Hall was full and standing room packed when opening night began. The unconventional treatment may have disturbed some of the audience members with a few leaving during the first act and still more not returning after intermission. Rather tame by European standards, it’s still definitely not a traditional take on the old classic, with lingerie frequently on display and simulated sex acts on the strategically placed couches which filled the stage, but then again, it is about the penultimate playboy who collects women as souvenirs, going so far as to have his servant keep a list of his over 2000 conquests.

With apologies to the ladies in the cast, this show belonged to the men. Simon Keenlyside seems to have made a specialty of playing the depraved Lothario in recent years, but no matter where he is, he owns the stage. At age 51, in burgundy velvet jacket and tuxedo slacks, he is the personification of elegance and the sounds that pour from his throat are pure gold. The blazingly fast “Fin ch’ han dal vino” was perfection in diction with attitude to spare while his mandolin-accompanied serenade in Act 2, “Deh vieni alla finestra”, was so exquisitely lovely that the audience seemed to be holding its collective breath until the last notes floated away. He threw his entire body into the role, running about the stage on tiptoe, scuttling around the furniture on his bottom, generally trying to rein in his lascivious master, while feeling genuine pity for the women left in Don Giovanni’s wake, but not being above taking advantage of any opportunity passing his way. His comic aria, “Madamina, il catalogo è questo” was a bit of a disappointment , but not through any fault of Mr. Drole - there was just so much going on stage that the singing got swallowed up in the action.

This production takes Masetto, sung by Reinhard Mayer, above the range of typical country bumpkin to an aggressive, West Side Story-type gangster, smoldering with barely suppressed rage; we know that he will wait for the opportunity to take the Don down and that he won’t rest until his mission is accomplished. Shawn Mathey, Don Ottavio, has a beautiful lyric tenor voice, but had he a stronger stage presence, his lengthy arias and recitative would have been better served. Alfred Muff was suitably eery in the brief role of the Commendatore.

Unfortunately, the women didn’t fare as well. Martina Janková, the Zerlina for the run, was the best of the lot. Her innate sense of comedy took over and drew eyes to her each time she was on stage. A true soubrette, her voice was light and pretty but had a pitch problem on the first “Andiam” in “Là ci darem la mano”, her duet with Don Giovanni. The staging here had her singing, “Batti, batti o bel Masetto” to the audience rather than to her fiancé, not the only park-and-bark moment of the evening, since both of the other women were sacrificed to this staging method as well, while Don Ottavio was left to direct his arias towards Maestro Welser-Möst! Malin Hartelius has a lovely voice and an elegant demeanor on stage even when cast in the somewhat thankless role of Donna Elvira. She was quite convincing as she vacillated, caught between a need for revenge in response to her callous abandonment by Don Giovanni and her love for the scoundrel. It’s this deep and selfless love which gives us hope for his ultimate redemption - Leporello sees it right away, eventually, she reveals it to the others who call for nothing less than the Don’s demise - if someone can love the rogue that much, surely there must be some good in him? Unfortunately, her view of the man is colored by her feelings, and he cannot be what she wishes he was. In yet another piece of peculiar direction, when Elvira arrives and is raging at Giovanni, she claims that she is pregnant; this is never mentioned again, and, at the end, she states that she is entering a convent. Were we simply to forget the comment made three hours earlier? And, after being subjected to the history of Giovanni’s conquests just after arriving, Elvira wanders upstage to silently dress his latest lingerie clad date in her own clothing and wave her off. Is she saying “good-bye” to herself, wishing that she had left him as well? That she could make a semblance of order out of such random symbolism is a credit to Ms. Hartelius’ acting skills. The weak link in this cast was Eva Mei as Donna Anna. Her voice was small but shrill and tight, with no bottom and little support in the middle, which caused the listener to lose focus. During “Or sai chi l’onore” and “Non mi dir”, she had trouble being heard over the orchestra, which, to be honest, was not entirely Ms. Mei’s fault because Severance Hall was not built for opera and the orchestra pit is level with the floor. In the ensemble numbers her strident tone rose above and overwhelmed the other singers. Ideally, one would like to hear distinct intonation among the female voices in this opera, especially between Anna and Elvira; I was left wishing that there had been more attention paid to the overall “payoff” of the sound of the group within the allotted space.

A major puzzlement was the inclusion of the mute character of the “Caretaker”. Barefoot, dressed as a mystical voodoo priestess in a sleeveless white gown and turban, she first appeared during the murder of the Commendatore. Having silent interaction only with Donna Elvira, the woman later brought an African tribal statue on stage to represent the Commendatore’s graveyard image. There was no reference point for her, her actions, or her props within the production or in the libretto, and she served only to confuse. Maybe it was overlooked in the transfer from the Zurich house to here, but the effigy seriously blocked the sight lines during “Oh, statua gentilissima”, the cemetery duet between Giovanni and Leporello.

As usual, the orchestra was excellent, but at times drowned out the vocal line, particularly toward the end of the opera, when Leporello is serving dinner to his master and Donna Elvira enters to try to beg Don Giovanni to change his ways. Again, I believe this to be due primarily to the logistics of having the orchestra at floor level; the sound projected directly out into the house leaving little wiggle room for the dynamic nuances of voices. Maestro Welser-Möst led the orchestra with a deft hand and great enthusiasm, setting the tone for the evening during the overture.

The Art Deco sets, with squared-off, golden arches framing the stage in a series from front to back were gorgeous in their simplicity. The furniture was minimalist: squared off couches and ottomans in grey and an Art Deco bar, which served multiple functions. Golden, full length curtains moved across the stage from right to left on silent glides, dividing it in half, and allowing for the disappearance of the Commendatore’s body and Don Giovanni’s banishment into hell. The lighting was straightforward but effective and all of these elements combined well to make the stage very visually appealing. The costumes were separated from the sets by at least two decades. Relieving the black were splashes of color coming from Zerlina’s dress, Giovanni’s jackets, Leporello’s white and black striped trousers and the dresses of the female chorus members.

Don Giovanni is a grand undertaking and having an international star of the magnitude of Simon Keenlyside playing the title character is a major coup. The audience was highly appreciative and it is to be hoped that the tradition of bringing opera to this city will continue through the auspices of the Cleveland Orchestra.

Suzanne Torrey



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