Atlanta is no stranger to Mozart’s great opera, Don Giovanni. The work was brought to the city seven times by the Metropolitan Opera Tour between 1954 and 1978, the impressive list of heavy hitters back then included George London, Cesare Siepi, Eleanor Steber, Leontyne Price, Nicolai Gedda, and Lisa Della Casa, just to mention a few. The Atlanta Opera proper first mounted its first production of Don Giovanni at the Woodruff Arts Center in 1993, and it is here where I can count myself as one with a personal remembrance of the luminaries of that first cast: Dean Peterson as Don Giovanni, Kip Wilburn as Don Ottavio, and Brenda Harris’ spectacular Atlanta Opera debut as Donna Anna. The company staged the work for the second time in grand fashion at the Fox Theater in 1998, and many still remember the more racy elements of that production. The mind’s ear remembers best Eugene Perry as Don Giovanni, Matile Rowland as Donna Anna, Brian Jauhianen as the Commendatore, Pamela Kucenic as Donna Elvira and Philip Cokorinos as Leporello. The last staging of the opera undertaken by the company took place in 2004, this time at the Civic Center with a lineup that almost merged the casts of the prior two productions (Dean Peterson reprising his Don Giovanni, Brenda Harris now as an exemplary Donna Elvira, Jeff Morrissey as Masetto, and the wonderful Leporello of Phillip Cokorinos). This new production of Don Giovanni thus marks the company’s fourth effort in mounting what many have ruled as one of, if not the, greatest opera ever written. Sadly, judging by the opening night’s performance on April 28, the values of the current presentation ranked below those of the company’s past efforts; and this was not due to the flexible baton of maestro Arthur Fagen, or the bare simple sets provided by Lyric Opera of Kansas City. Rather, the performance was undermined by a general clumsiness in Richard Kagey’s direction and an extremely uneven cast.
High on the list of disappointments was bass Andrea Concetti in the eponymous role of Don Giovanni. Like Bizet’s Carmen, Puccini’s Tosca and Verdi’s Violetta in La Traviata, this is an iconic role, deserving of a vibrant artist capable of filling out its potential through the means of a luxurious voice. Judging on the strengths of his opening night effort, not much of this was in evidence. Visually speaking, Mr. Concetti is handsome enough to play a believable Don Giovanni, but his looks did little to improve upon an interpretation that consistently faded into the background. Throughout the long evening, he seemed physically disinterested in the entire affair, and gathered his enthusiasm only when the staging allowed him to virtually trampoline offstage (a well bejeweled lady sitting behind me uttered the word “plonk!” during one of his departures). When not making an athletic exit, he dramatically phoned in his performance, rendering his scenes with an air of un-involvement that veritably disqualified his impersonation as a non-event. A similar quality negated his singing, a real shame as vocally he is not without merit.
There is a voice here for sure, a sturdy full lyric bass and of good sonority at that, but this fact rendered his assumption the more frustrating, for he either lacked the creativity or interest to present a musical characterization of note. Phrasings were kept to the bare minimum, and he peppered his declamation only when the most overtly comic situation necessitated it. This square, uncreative delivery took its toll both on his art and the ear, and listening to his attempt at seducing Zerlina in their famous duet, for instance, was a bit of a chore. His singing and attitude remained equally uninspired during the delivery of his first act “finch’han al vino”. Here, nothing in the voice or attitude matched the text, giving the impression that the singer was simply pacing his resources. Perhaps he was saving his instrument for the famous serenade in act two, which proved to be his most effective number during the evening. Alas, one serenade cannot save a Don Giovanni willing to concede the spotlight to just about any character onstage with him, including the frequently dull role of Don Ottavio.
The next notorious casualty of the evening was the Donna Elvira of soprano Melody Moore, though her shortcomings were of a far more interesting variety than those of Mr. Concetti. She is an attractive woman and agreeable in bearing, and for all its worth, she was committed to the zany characterization devised for her by director Richard Kagey. The main point of contention came when her limited instrument navigated through the treacherous burdens of her part, for the role of Donna Elvira is the musical version of a interminable journey on a stair master. Hers is a lyric soprano voice of a respectable size but uneven knit, best heard when handled delicately by the artist but likely to turn squallid if pressed in any form. The registers are hardly equalized, and she has not yet mastered the break between them to her artistic advantage. These limitations, along with undistinguished flexibility, made for an awkward showing throughout the evening.
Her entrance aria made a modest impression mostly by her stage business rather than vocal merits, and her warning to Zerlina, “Ah fuggi il traditor!”, gravely exposed her uneven handling of such bravura dysplays. To be sure, she fearlessly attacked the ornate runs that close the soliloquy, but this stuck out as the execution of an interpolated skill rather than as an expression of outrage within the legato. These were but the beginnings of graver faults, the next taking place during the masked trio in the finale of act one, where she stuck out badly during the ensemble (the ascent to the high B flat being particularly problematic). The final test of “Mi tradi quell’alma ingrata” proved completely outside of her comfort zone, its testing hurdles unraveling her resolve at every phrase. To her credit, she dug deep to isolate some key meaningful musical moments, such as the line “ma se guardo il suo cimento, palpitando il cor mi va” which she attacked in a reduced tendered yet fearful tone, proved an island of lovely in an otherwise regrettable take on her famous number.
The Zerlina of soprano Angela Kloc did little to remedy the situation. She is a young singer with the appropriate physique du role to portray the ingénue, but not the voice or technique to properly embody the role in a more than functional fashion. Curiously, her impersonation was most successful in the recitative sections of the score. Whenever she was required to launch into song, the voice was thin, somewhat brittle and at best crystalline in the top register. She significantly labored during her aria “Vedrai carino,” the effect of which was undermined by unreliable pitch. Hers is not an uninteresting voice, but certainly one not polished enough to thoroughly satisfy in such a principal assignment. She was bettered by her bass boyfriend Masetto, played here by Brent Davis, an efficient artist who in this production somewhat recalled Will Ferrell in “Elf”. The part of Masetto does not allow the singer much room to show his merit, but Mr. Davis‘ portrayal was vocally consistent and dramatically appropriate.
The unhappy marks keep coming when assessing the portrayal of The Commendatore by bass Andrew Kroes. His key role is limited to three scenes, but we will only cover the first one for reasons we will mention momentarily. His voice struggled to find its placing during the opening tableau, lacking the appropriate sonority and commanding presence to do the part of the old nobleman justice. He could have also used more help from director Richard Kagey during the anemic duel that followed, which fell completely flat. For the cemetery and dinner scenes, Mr Kroes was assisted through artificial means to create the dramatic impact Mozart required in the partiture, thus our assessment of his contribution will go no further.
To be sure, there were some saving graces to this production, starting with the consistent Leporello of Argentinian Bass-Baritone Eduardo Chama. Though his voice was somewhat covered and not “free of the throat”, he made much with the part which we are told has become his signature role, and committed himself to Richard Kagey’s over the top, audience-winking view of Don Giovanni’s servant. Vocally speaking, there was much to pick apart: He could have presented a more seamless scale, greater variety in emission, more firmness in tone and rapidity in his patter passages. His greatest hiccup took place during the testing catalogue aria, where he ran out of juice during some of the longer passages. Still, there was a vocal personality here, which made a compelling case for looking past these limitations.
No such compromises where needed with the final two soloists of this cast, two artists which I have saved for the end in order to leave the reader with some positive words amidst this somewhat grim memento. Towering over the rest of his male colleagues was the Don Ottavio of Nicholas Phan, whose clear, sweet tenor voice called out the vocal deficiencies of his lesser colleagues during several ensembles. In terms of sound alone, the voice announced the arrival of a person of higher breeding whenever he entered the stage, and his collaboration with Pamela Armstrong’s Donna Anna during their dramatic opening duet arguably ranked as the musical highlight of the evening. Still, there were some reservations. When his talents were singled out in song, he could be stingy with the tone, which came in and out of focus during his first act lament “Dalla sua pace”. Here, the long lines were fussed over in a rather mannered, continental style that attracted attention both for its self-indulgence and beauty of tone. A more straight-forward delivery would have served better, but kudos were ultimately awarded for trying out something creative. All Don Ottavios are ultimately judged by the rigors of the second act aria “Il mio tesoro”, which Mr. Phan sang with a good (if not faultless) legato and considerable panache (yet for those who rank McCormack as the standard, Mr. Phan did break the runs in several place in search of life giving oxygen). For my money though, his finest moments took place during his pleas for Donna Anna’s hand in the final scene “Or che tutti, o mio tesoro,” where his phrasing took an inspired edge and beautifully framed Donna Anna’s retorts. He was a fine Don Ottavio until the very end.
This finally brings us to the Donna Anna of soprano Pamela Armstrong, who unquestionably deserves the evening’s highest honors. Here was a beautiful, energetic, full lyric soprano voice of equalized registers, owned by an artist with the fine technique to wield it. She was also the most dramatically alert singer onstage, calling out the new school that claims great acting in opera comes from runway-sized singers. Mrs. Armstrong did it all with the voice, providing what the majority of the cast around her seemed to seriously lack: Dramatically alert opera singing. Nowhere was this more evident than during her first act aria “Or sai chi l’onore,” where after the dramatic urgency of her recitative, her emission stayed in the same shelf of sound through Mozart’s storm as the score took it higher and louder up the staff. Through this combination of vocal heft, velvet, and force, the effect was achieved: The audience felt it as a musically visceral experience. Within these parameters, she embodied the real opera singer, one that manages to move the audience through poised, un-amplified singing, something that no diet, production update or designer costume can ever replace.
She was also a smart, sensible artist, willing to contribute her own personal stamp to a phrase without abandoning the realm of good taste. During her second act scena, “Non mi dir” her reaction against Don Ottavio’s accusation of cruelty was particularly fine. “Crudele?!” she moaned, like a beast suddenly kicked by its master, the voice never losing its noble luster, yet bending to express both her hurt and outrage. In the display that followed, the long lines of the aria were negotiated well against the sudden cascades of ornaments, and though a finer trill could be asked for, she received more than passing marks for her effort. She thus joins the ranks of other fine Donna Annas previously heard in the city – more importantly, her participation did much to salvage an otherwise unfortunate evening.
These performances of Don Giovanni closed the 2011-2012 season for the Atlanta Opera, and though this production did little to advance the company’s reputation, we can look forward to the direction it will take later this year as the 2012-2013 season has already been announced (it will feature such familiar works as Bizet’s Carmen and Verdi’s La Traviata, and the surprising addition of Rossini’s exuberant comedy, L’Italiana in Algeri). For more information, please visit http://atlantaopera.org/