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Ding, Dong, the Letch is Dead

Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts
04/16/2011 -  & April 22, 27, 30, May 3, 8, 2011
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Don Giovanni
Tom Corbeil (Leporello), Jacquelyn Wagner (Donna Anna), David Pittsinger (Don Giovanni), Morris Robinson (Il Commendatore), Andrew Bidlack (Don Ottavio), Georgia Jarman (Donna Elvira), Brittany Robinson, Rebecca Luttio (Zerlina), Jonathan G. Michie (Masetto)
Florida Grand Opera Orchestra and Chorus, John Keene (chorus master), Andrew Bisantz (conductor)
John Pascoe (director, set & costume design), Donald Edmund Thomas (lighting design), Sara Erde (choreography)

M. Robinson & D. Pittsin (Courtesy of FGO)

Florida Grand Opera was founded in 1941. In its 70 seasons, this is only its fourth production of Don Giovanni, the premiere not being until 1988. So, though it took some time to get Mozart’s masterpiece, South Florida now eagerly welcomes the Don with the company reporting healthy ticket sales.

Opera virgins who start with Don Giovanni might feel violated. This opera is devoid of romance unless it includes overt lying. There is humor, there are wacky characters and endless hummable music, but no audience member leaves the theatre without a sense of having been forced to consider the unsettling ambiguities of this morality play. Seeing a performance of this demanding opera can seem like entering a freak show that never ends. People can talk about the daringness of modern opera, but little since has been as innovative and dark.

And Don Giovanni is not a perfect drama; actually, far from it. Still, the first act makes complete sense. It is the second that has trouble getting started and makes little push until the singers showpieces begin; and of course the septet which like so many of Mozart ensembles is another opportunity to set apart singers from artists. Most importantly, the music is arguably opera’s finest. Performers in this one must be team members. This is an opera where no one, yet everyone, is the star.

Florida Grand Opera’s production is a knockout. The singing is first rate and the drama feels like we have entered an amusement park funhouse or slipped into someone’s dream which never gets too scary. Nope, this reverie is mainly hilarious and intriguing.

But it is the great cast that puts this over with such conviction. Jacquelyn Wagner is the sort of Donna Anna we rarely get. Looking as elegant as if she stepped out of a 1950s Fellini movie, with a powerful voice that is always focused, this Anna stands a full head taller than her fiancé. This no-nonsense woman never strays in her mission to avenge her father’s murder and uses her own pistol at the conclusion of act one to try and take out the man she claims attempted to dishonor her. Wagner’s “Or sai chi l’onore” makes it clear this is not a woman one messes with. For many, nutcase Elvira is this opera’s most loveable character. Tough as she tries to appear, even with a Valkyrie breastplate and Wonder Woman costume, she will always be a failed heroine when it comes to love. She just cannot take “no” for an answer and carrying around her husband’s baby for much of the opera is not going to have any influence on him. It is not inconceivable that Elvira would borrow someone else’s child from the convent she is staying in; there is nothing she will not do to achieve her goal. The poor woman has no sense of shame. Georgia Jarman, with her sumptuous voice, is obviously having a ball that naturally spills over to the audience. Zerlina is a very smart cookie. Dressed for a World War 2 USO dance, this perpetual party girl makes it clear that she can take on all the boys. With her beautiful voice and sexiness Brittany Robinson understands the power of femininity and it is easy to believe that she makes Masetto her love slave.

The men are no less impressive. Jonathan G. Michie plays the sad sack Masetto with complete sympathy. When he stupidly gives his weapons to the Don (disguised as Leporello) the audience’s groan makes it clear that Michie is this farce’s ideal straight man. Dressed in an outfit that makes one think of a wannabe Tony Manero from Saturday Night Fever, Masetto seems like a bigger role when a solid singing actor is in charge. Ottavio is a role that never gives an actor much to work with. So the tenor is wise to just stand there and sing as beautifully as possible. Andrew Bidlack understands this and his “Dalla sua pace” is terrific. “Il Mio Tesoro” wasn’t as well placed but by the end of this run, he will be more confident. Leporello in this production is a cross between the MC of Cabaret and The Addams Family’s Lurch. Tom Corbeil understands all the nuances of the Don’s servant and as is often the case, his applause is the biggest at curtain time. The Catalog Aria still needs some more vocal weight to have its full impact but Corbeil is an artist we are lucky to have. Morris Robinson’s Commendatore is so powerfully sung that it is shocking to believe that he is not amplified. The jerky moves his statue makes clearly terrifies all but the never repentant Giovanni.

Don Giovanni can be a thankless role in some hands. He doesn’t get the gloriously beautiful and powerful arias his cast mates do, so this role requires presence. David Pittsinger overflows with arrogance. At the Commendatore’s dinner, he makes several gestures that would seem appropriate only for the most vulgar of porno movies, his snide smile emblazoning his shamelessness. During this near orgy we finally realize that our laughter is no longer, and never was, appropriate. None of this is meant to imply that Pittsinger does not also have a voice. Quite the opposite, one is not often likely to hear sounds as beautiful as those he brought to “Deh vieni alla finestra.”

John Pascoe’s production is a marvel. Where is this opera set? Well? Who knows? And does it matter? Good morality tales must be universal and though the costumes suggest various periods of the 20th century, it must also be timeless. But all of this is not so easy if the conductor isn’t in command. Andrew Bisantz has done it again by finding sounds in this score that are not often heard. The evening came in at under three hours (not including intermission) meaning that there was no dawdling but neither were there any noticeable cuts.

The greatest compliment was from several first time opera goers saying that they never knew opera could be so exciting. That’s what it’s all about, so let’s hope that Florida Grand Opera’s Don Giovanni finds many new recruits.

Jeff Haller



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