Thursday, March 16, 2006

The Don's Early Light

By Mitchell

Far be it from me to suggest that a musical genius like Mozart might have got it all wrong, but I’ve often thought it might have been more appropriate to end Don Giovanni with the Don being dragged to the Netherworld by the statue of the man he murdered, the Commendatore, rather than with the scene that followed – his various victims taking delight in his final comeuppance. Take, for example, Puccini’s ending to La Traviata, with Alfredo looking down on the lifeless form of his love Violetta, and his final anguished cry as the music swells to its thunderous conclusion. It seems to me as if this was the way to bring Don Giovanni to an end.

It probably would not have been Mozart’s style, though, and it certainly wouldn’t have fit with the tone set in the Minnesota Opera’s just-concluded production of the classic. This was a Giovanni somewhat different from what we usually see, and it wasn’t only with the updating of the setting to an early 20th century, faintly Art Deco-stylized era.

No, this version chose to put the accent on the humorous elements that have always been present in what Mozart called his “dramma giocoso (opera buffa)" - in other words, a comedy with dramatic overtones. Rather than the evil sadist we’ve come to know and love (or rather, hate), this Don Giovanni (literally, Don Juan) comes across as a charming rogue; a bit of a cad perhaps (there is, after all, that murder you have to explain away, not to mention an attempted rape), but in the end he's not much different from other rakes we’ve known and loved through the years – Bill Clinton, for instance. Sure, he’s still a manipulator who sees in women nothing more than a chance for pleasure. Sure, he’s perfectly content to break up a marriage just for a night or two of passion. But, as he tells his servant Leporello, to be loyal to one woman would mean denying the other thousand. The man is nothing if not self-assured.

And in the hands of this Giovanni, Kyle Ketelsen (a winner of the Metropolitan Opera's National Council Audition), such a claim would not be out of line. Ketelsen played the comic potential of Giovanni to the hilt, without ever quite letting the character lapse into caricature. His Giovanni could turn on a dime - charming one moment, menacing the next, capable of making love and war in the same paragraph. He was smooth, suave, convincing, and totally amoral; and Ketelsen was in total control of the stage whenever he was on.

The same goes for Giovanni’s hapless servant Leporello, played by Patrick Carfizzi. Leporello is all too aware of his master’s faults – indeed, give him a moment and he’ll catalog them for you – but, although one gets the impression he really does feel bad about the Don's misdeeds and his own role in them, he lacks the moral strength to pull away. It is only when the Don is safely dead that he feels he can finally express his true feelings. Carfizzi was a true showman while on stage - at once both the efficient agent of his master and the helpless victim of his own success. For as long as he's useful to Giovanni, he makes himself indespensible - and thus is trapped in a lifestyle from which he yearns to escape (if the price is right, that is). He is, in a sense, the comic relief that advances the dramatic story, and one thinks that this was what was missing from Papageno in last year's The Magic Flute.

The biggest cheers at the end of the evening were reserved for these two, and rightly so; for the rest of the cast, while good to varying degrees, couldn't really keep up with Ketelsen and Carfizzi. Patricia Risley, as Giovanni's abandoned lover Donna Elvira (who's also pregnant, an interesting touch not in the original), was charming and vulnerable - and, truth be told, a little foolish to modern sensabilities; Erin Wall, playing the revenge-driven Donna Anna (it was her father Giovanni killed in the opening scene) was a capable singer but a static actress; Jamie-Rose Guarrine, as Giovanni's current conquest Zerlina, was - well, she was there; and Raymond Ayers, as Zerlina's left-out newlywed husband Masetto, was victim of a weak voice and a strong orchestra - not a good combination.

The production itself featured some interesting touches - the modern dress, for example (and one must admit that Giovanni was much more charming in his top hat, cape, and spats than he might have been in more traditional garb), and the playing-up of the comedy without changing the essence of the story. One thinks, for example, of the Act 1 conclusion in which Donna Anna, her would-be champion Don Ottavio (an adequate Theodore Chletsos), and Donna Elvira try to crash Giovanni's party, disguising themselves in masks and frock coats. The idea that the very pregnant Donna Elvira, her stomach protruding far beyond the cutaway coat, could possibly fool anyone simply by wearing a mask, was a moment of absurdity not lost on the amused audience. And yet the scene itself was played straight, and lost none of its impact for the comic touches.

There was also the scene in Act 2 where a shotgun-wielding Masetto, part of a posse out to get Giovanni, is separated from the group by Giovanni himself (disguised as Leporello), whereupon the two reenact a scene that could have come straight out of a Bugs Bunny cartoon ("Be vewy vewy qwiet; I'm hunting Giowannis"). This, too, could have easily turned slapstick without Ketelsen's steady hand.

I have to admit, though, that the climax was something of a letdown. Whereas many productions feature the Commendatore's Statue actually coming to life and dragging Giovanni to hell, this one did it all with smoke and mirrors - or lights and shadows, as it were. Not that it was ineffective; but when one goes to a western and is told that a band of Indians is about to attack, you don't want to see the tribe represented by a few feathers sticking out from behind a hill. That's a trick reserved for old-time TV dramas with small budgets; an operal company with national pretentions should be able to do better.

Xian Zhang, making her Minnesota Opera debut (as, indeed, were most of the leads) led the Opera's house orchestra, the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, in a performance that was generally rock steady (although there were a couple of instances in which the singers and musicians seemed to get slightly out of synch). During the overture to Act 1, the thought crossed my mind - having heard this piece many, many times on the radio - that this orchestra was too small to be playing this music. But, given the cast and the size of the house, it proved to be just right.

And, of course, the gorgeous melodies of Mozart are almost impossible to contain within an orchestra pit; they want to burst out of the walls and envelope everything and everyone in their path. The sublime genius strikes yet again. Which leads, as it usually does, to a satisfying evening.

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