Feb. 11 Syracuse Opera: Don Giovanni

Don GiovanniSyracuse Opera mounts a credible ‘Don Giovanni’

But the production makes several unwelcome cuts — including Don Ottavio’s engaging ‘Dalla sua pace’ and a chunk of the prominent Dinner Scene

By David Rubin

Of the three operas Mozart wrote with his librettist Lorenzo da Ponte, Don Giovanni is the hardest to bring off.

Not only does it require seven singers with lengthy roles who can deliver difficult solos and blend in tricky ensembles, but also an eighth singer who has a stentorian bass and can scare the bejeezus out of the audience.

The director must figure out how to send the title character to Hell in a harrowing final scene.

The action is being interrupted constantly by two of the most tedious characters in all of opera: Donna Anna and her timid lover, Don Ottavio. The former is forever bewailing the loss of her father and swearing revenge on his killer, and the latter is scheming to seduce her into the marriage bed.

Finally, the conductor can kill this opera with leaden tempos. Just listen to the Herbert von Karajan recording on DG with Samuel Ramey in the title role. That was dead on arrival.

The challenge for Syracuse Opera, which works on a shoestring budget, was even greater. A lack of funds required the company to rent simple, generic period sets from an equally tiny company, Tri-Cities Opera, just down Route 81 in Binghamton, New York. The 18th century costumes were straight from the voluminous racks at Malabar in Toronto (which is worth a visit the next time you are in Toronto and want to see acres of peasant and soldier costumes, gypsy dresses, and royal finery).

Nor did director Jonathan Eaton help. It was hard to tell if he had any particular perspective on the opera. Eaton left the young cast to its own devices, which meant a lot of embarrassing overacting as the principles moved about the stage in search of some real-life connection. When Eaton might have turned up the temperature — as in the tender scenes between Zerlina and Masetto, or Giovanni’s seduction of Elvira’s chambermaid, or his near-rapes of Donna Anna and Zerlina — Eaton shrank from an honest and shocking portrayal of the sexual tension. He must have thought the Legion of Decency was still riding high in Syracuse.

Eaton had Don Giovanni dragged to Hell through his fireplace, with the usual red lights, smoke from dry ice, and a few waving arms supplying the “terror.” Yawn.

Yet despite all of this, Syracuse Opera offered a mostly enjoyable performance on opening night, February 11, 2011. Most of the credit goes to conductor Douglas Kinney Frost, who is also the company’s music director. He led a brisk, exciting performance that pushed the young cast to its limits, but they held on for the ride. Mi Tradi for Donna Elvira was particularly swift, but fun. Leporello’s Catalogue Aria moved along with dispatch, as did both of Don Giovanni’s short, bravura numbers. Even his serenade to the chambermaid, which often drags, was perfectly judged. The ensemble conclusion to Act 1 was well blended and got the blood racing. Coordination between Kinney Frost and the singers was generally excellent, particularly in light of how little rehearsal time the company can provide.

Kinney Frost also chose the cast, and this one was better than most at Syracuse Opera in recent years. Last year’s exceptional concert performance of The Flying Dutchman was the company’s high water mark musically since at least 1990. That, too, was a Kinney Frost casting and conducting creation.

While none of the voices in this Don Giovanni was thrilling, or hinted at a major career, all but two were respectable and gave great pleasure. Perhaps the strongest was the Donna Anna of Amanda Pabyan. She is an experienced Mozart singer with a long list of credits at some major houses, including Glimmerglass. Both her big arias were very well done.

Timothy Kuhn, too, is an experienced Giovanni, having sung the role for New York City Opera. He has the looks and the swagger for the part and he worked well with Leporello (David Cushing). Because the two often wore masks, and because their voices are similar (Cushing’s being a bit deeper and stronger), their switching of roles and costumes worked well.

The young lovers Zerlina and Masetto were cast from the company’s successful Resident Artist program. Debra Stanley was a bit underpowered for a house seating 2000, but she is attractive, the voice is pure, and she already has considerable stage presence. Matthew Young is not so self-assured on stage and needed some direction. But the voice has promise, and he wailed convincingly when beaten by his many attackers.

The company cut Ottavio’s Dalla sua pace (more on the cuts later). That’s a shame, because Rolando Sanz has an attractive tenor voice. It is a bit heavier than what one usually encounters for Ottavio. It is not quite agile enough to move easily through Mozart’s decorations, but his aria il mio tesoro was well done and produced a sustained ovation. (Speaking of decorations, Kinney Frost and the singers provided them for almost all the repeats in their arias.)

That leaves Donna Elvira and the Commendatore. Kate Mangiameli looks like a credible Elvira — tall and stately. But she lacked both the craziness the part demands and a cutting edge to the voice. Her portrayal both musically and dramatically was wan. Given that Elvira is arguably the most interesting character in the opera (who just can’t wash that man, Giovanni, out of her hair), this was a letdown.

But not as big a letdown as the Commendatore of Christopher Temporelli. He doesn’t have much to do, but it’s essential. As the ghostly marble statute in the cemetery scene he must strike terror into Leporello and Giovanni. When he arrives for dinner at Giovanni’s palace he must shock Elvira and Leporello and then threaten the Don. When he demands that the Don repent, and is met with repeated refusals, the audience should be transfixed. Temporelli doesn’t have the juice. The voice is too small, as was his stature. The company should have amplified his voice in both scenes. That is an honorable solution, often used. Without the amplification, the Commendatore was not a frightening spirit from the beyond.

The company did add thunder at various points in the score to emphasize the supernatural, I guess. It didn’t work, and it often covered the music, which is a sin.

Back to the cuts. Losing Dalla sua pace is not unusual. But in the last scene, the company cut everything from the point at which the Don sits down to dinner, to the point at which Elvira enters and then shrieks when she sees the Commendatore. Gone was the by-play between Leporello and the Don as his servant tries to cadge some food. Gone was the stage band playing Soler and Figaro for the Don’s amusement. Gone was the careful geometry of the scene.

Given my previous experience with this company, these cuts were no doubt a result of having to bring in the performance before the witching hour of 11 p.m., at which point the Syracuse Symphony (the pit band) must receive overtime payment according to its union contract. In this event, the performance ended at 10:58, so the goal was achieved, but at a serious musical price. For those who know the opera well, the cut was a punch to the gut, and most unwelcome.

Nevertheless, most of Mozart’s musical demands, which are considerable in this opera, were met. It was not nearly a Don Giovanni of one’s dreams, but that is as elusive as the Holy Grail, even in opera houses with resources far beyond those available to Syracuse Opera.

Details Box:
What: Syracuse Opera presents Mozart’s
Don Giovanni
When: February 11, 2011, 8 P.M.
Where: John H. Mulroy Civic Center, Crouse-Hinds Theater
Time: Approximately 3 hours
Cast: Timothy Kuhn, Kate Mangiameli, Amanda Pabyan, David Cushing, Rolando Sanz, Douglas Kinney Frost (conductor)

  1 comment for “Feb. 11 Syracuse Opera: Don Giovanni

  1. Herb Schneiderman
    February 16, 2011 at 2:21 pm

    I thought David Rubin’s review was spot on.

    I have only a trivial comment. The costumes of the principals were, I believe, 17th century, not 18th century.(ex: the Don’s sword was the long cup-hilted rapier of the 17th century) Just the same, it all worked for me.

    (David, you need not print this)

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