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The Atlanta Opera | Mozart: Don Giovanni

24 Jan

Absent from the stage of the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Center since 2012, Atlanta Opera audiences welcomed back Mozart’s Don Giovanni this past Saturday with open arms, and for good reason. Mozart’s version of Don Juan, a perennial classic in the repertoire, has a guaranteed home in the operatic stages the world over, and Atlanta is no exception. By way of the Metropolitan Opera touring days, Atlanta has familiarized itself with Mozart’s masterwork through a veritable who’s who of 20th century operatic luminaries: Jerome Hines, Eleanor Steber, Leontyne Price, Cesare Siepi, George London, Lisa della Casa, Fernando Corena, Sherill Milnes, Roberta Peters, Cesare Valleti, Nicolai Gedda, Theodor Uppman, Edda Moser, Frederica von Stade, and Teresa Zylis-Gara among the names to be dropped. The Atlanta Opera proper would stage its first production in 1993, an occasion that brought Dean Peterson’s Don Giovanni to the stage of the Alliance Theater and marked the debut of the spectacular Brenda Harris as Donna Anna. The strength of those performances would solidify a lifelong obsession for opera in yours truly, a then high school sophomore experiencing the thrill of live performance for the very first time.

The Atlanta Opera brought Don Giovanni back in 1998, this time at the Fox theater with a controversial production by Ken Cazan (several audience members were seen to walk out during the banquet scene) headlined by Eugene Perry, Pamela Kucenic as Donna Elvira, and the much-admired Martile Rowland as Donna Anna. When scheduling conflicts at The Fox Theater obliged the company to relocate to The Civic Center, Don Giovanni made a comeback in 2004 with a near reunion of the 1993 leads, but this time with Brenda Harris as Donna Elvira. Prior to these performances, the opera’s most recent presentation took place at The Cobb Energy Performing Arts Center in 2012, a run held to standard by the efforts of the Donna Anna of Pamela Armstrong and the Ottavio of Nicholas Phan if memory serves us right. 

Since Atlanta Opera patrons can claim a certain familiarity with Don Giovanni, it was no surprise to hear some gasps among the ovations as the curtain fell on the opening night’s presentation immediately following the iconic Commendatore scene. Surely, something foul was afoot, and puzzled mutterings from local Mozartians could be heard as the audience made its slow retreat towards the exits. A quick review of the opera’s performance history, however, provides the Atlanta Opera with the receipts to justify the decision to remove the epilogue.

The performing version of the opera which modern audiences have become familiar with is not entirely the work which triumphantly premiered in Prague in October 29, 1787. For the Vienna premiere the following year, Mozart made significant alterations to accommodate the starry lineup: The role of Donna Anna would be entrusted to Aloysia Lange, a prima donna with exuberant vocal resources who had been the composer’s romantic interest in his early days in Salzburg (keeping it in the family, he eventually married her sister Constanze in 1782). This state of affairs was not lost on the celebrated Caterina Cavalieri, who quickly declared her engagement as Donna Elvira in the Vienna premiere conditional. At her insistence, Mozart composed a new aria, the bravura scena “Mi tradi quell’alma ingrata” to match Lange’s Act I soliloquy. Tweaks to the score did not end here, and as it is often the case the tenor had requests of this own. To spare Vienna’s Don Ottavio the difficulties of the Act II ornate showpiece “Il mio tesoro”, Mozart removed the aria and composed “Dalla sua pace” for insertion in Act I. To patch up the space left bare by the removal of “Il mio tesoro,” Mozart composed a short duet between Zerlina and Leporello which never gained much traction in modern revivals.  The Vienna score also does not include the epilogue which follows the climatic Commendatore scene, leading to speculate that the subsequent performances which ended immediately after Don Giovanni is dragged to hell was within the composer’s dramatic designs. The existence of these two versions offers companies an array of choices, and most prefer a composite version which will feature both of Don Ottavio and all three of Donna Elvira’s solos. The duet between Zerlina and Leporello is omitted, and the epilogue from the Prague premiere is left intact. The inclusion of all possible numbers of importance has its obvious musical benefits and some theatrical draw backs. The text of the Ottavio arias are not congruent (Mozart never intended for them to be sung in the same performance), leaving the audience puzzled as the Ottavio of “Il mio tesoro” never really makes good on all his swagger. The epilogue itself, though perfectly fitting the style of the day, serves as an anti-climax to the scene which precedes it. As heard on Saturday evening, the Atlanta Opera arrived at a working version of the score through new compromises. It discarded Don Ottavio’s “Dalla sua pace” in favor of “Il mio tesoro” and removed the epilogue scene thus ending the opera after Don Giovanni’s demise. Perhaps to further distill the action, recitative sections which serve as vital character exposition were also subjected to substantial reduction, and Leporello’s plea following Act II’s sextet that reveals his cat fishing has inexplicably bit the dust.

Brandon Cedel as Don Giovanni and Giovanni Romeo as Leporello. Photo credit: Raftermen.

Tasked with managing this musical gamble as part of his Atlanta Opera debut, conductor Jan Latham-Koenig took some time to settle into his paces. After an incisive and scholarly reading of the famous overture, his interactions with the cast occasionally called out a tense element in the relationship between the principals and his clear, yet unyielding baton. When applied to this cast of young artists, most of them making their Atlanta Opera debuts along with the maestro, the results were musically tidy, but poetically limited.

Already enjoying a considerable amount of success in the first decade of his career, bass-baritone Brandon Cedel’s Don Giovanni cut a striking figure upon his entrance. A tall, good-looking young man, Mr. Cedel is a good actor, and looked dashing in the various formal wear which proved the main benefit of the director’s update. His voice is of important profile and size, but a sameness of method often renders his singing breathy and stiff. Oddly enough, the mechanisms which he employs to make his voice exert itself against the orchestra also contributed to its dissipation. The opera’s title role provided many opportunities for this young artist to give it his best go at it, and among Mr. Cedel’s most successful efforts were his handling of Don Giovanni’s simple serenade, the famous “Deh vieni alla finestra”, and the opera’s final scene.

He was frequently bettered by the efforts of his frumpy servant Leporello, sung here by bass-baritone Giovanni Romeo. A singer who so impressed us last year as Bartolo in the Atlanta Opera’s production of Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia, it was a joy to see Mr. Romeo returned to this stylized variation of Seville via this Mozartian vehicle. A native of Milan, Mr. Romeo brings along with him shades of a now diminished school that once graced the patter song of the great buffo exponents of the past, kept alive in recent decades by the likes of Simone Alaimo and Michele Pertusi, and the omission of Leporello’s “Ah pieta, signori miei” was a real shame. Matching the impression he made in the previous year, Mr. Romeo’s singing remains expressive and responsive throughout his scale.  More importantly, he has an artistic compass that guides his performance, projecting genuine intent behind each phrase. Whether this indicates an exclusive proclivity towards the comedic repertoire remains to be seen.

Giovanni Romeo as Leporello and Jennifer Johnson Cano as Donna Elvira. Photo credit: Raftermen.

The role of Il Commendatore was curiously undertaken by the same singer handling Masetto at both the Prague and Vienna premieres of Don Giovanni. Whether this was by chance or Mozart’s design, the tradition did not stick, and most modern productions (such as the one being discussed) will employ the service of separate basses to do well by these parts. Atlanta’s Commendatore, George Andguladze, hails from Georgia (the country, not the state) and arrives with an impressive resume under his belt. As heard Saturday evening, his bass may not be dark hued enough to embody creepy, but is plenty steady and ample to be heard unassisted, allowing the company to rectify from previous injury (we remember 2012, we remember).  Pertaining to the evening’s Masetto, the announced Edwin Jhamal Davis was inexplicably replaced with bass-baritone Andrew Gilstrap, who’s voice we had sampled briefly when he undertook the part of the registrar in the season’s opener: Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. Though we cannot speak on the talents of Mr. Davis, Mr. Gilstrap’s participation was most appreciated. His is a well-realized bass-baritone of good size, with a natural feel for declamation and devoid of the trappings of over production. With slow development and careful planning, great things await this talented young singer….and us.

Representing the higher voices, Duke Kim lent his breezy tenore di grazia to his impersonation of Don Ottavio to good effect in the opera’s dynamic opening scene and the ensembles that follow. Without the testing aria “Dalla sua pace” to measure his attributes in a sustained melody, the tenor had to patiently await the arrival of “Il mio tesoro” in the second act, only to join the countless artists who have fallen prey to the aria’s extreme difficulties. The aria calls for true mastery of florid passagework, alongside incisive attack, elegant phrasing and extraordinary lung capacity designed to illustrate the young nobleman’s resolve. These are qualities which Mr. Kim possessed to be sure, but in varying degrees of moderate quantities. Histrionically, Mr. Kim broke little new ground in his interpretation of Donna Anna’s fiancée, easily settling into the expected high bred dandy archetype and looking good in the process.

As Ottavio’s beleaguered love interest, Armenian soprano Mane Galoyan brought a youthful splendour to the role of Donna Anna. In her introduction to the Atlanta audience, Ms. Galoyan revealed an instrument of full lyric proportions with spinto possibilities, which distinguished itself through its round, soft brightness and purity of tone. Her vocal toolbelt is endowed with good agility, an impressive range, and a facility in dynamics which allows her instrument to convince in authoritative stance, qualities which empowered her to deliver convincing accounts of the fiery “Or sai chi l’onore” and the plaintive “Non mi dir”. Despite these superlatives, there were signs that she’s still cementing a technique that will allow for greater mastery of the ornate scales that decorate Anna’s devilish outbursts, and while her singing was impressive, it has yet to fully exploit the expressive possibilities in the part. As to her stage business, her small frame and melancholy features were not flattered by the blocking and costume designs. Under the right light, her face evokes the enigmatic quality found in an old Patti or Ponselle portrait. 

Meigui Zhang as Zerlina and Andrew Gilstrap as Masetto. Photo credit: Raftermen.

Folks well-versed with the modern performance history of Don Giovanni have witnessed the casting of the peasant girl Zerlina switch from light soubrette sopranos to lyric mezzos and vice versa throughout the decades. There also exists evidence that contraltos used to have a go at it in the 19th century. Zerlina’s character arch is unusually rich in her frank awareness of the power of her sexuality as it relates to her station in society. In its casting of the part, the Atlanta Opera was fortunate to secure the services of Meigui Zhang, a soprano of unusual ease in the middle and low registers (enhancing the character’s sultry nature) and an easy extension to the upper scale required to fulfill the part’s charming arias. Ms. Zhang’s youth and beauty furthered her cause tremendously.

While many productions of Don Giovanni focus the prima donna spotlight on Donna Anna, the Atlanta Opera’s current production has placed the laurels on the brow of mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnson Cano who makes her Atlanta Opera debut as Donna Elvira. Hers is an exciting dramatic mezzo-soprano which extends excitedly upwards to do right by Elvira’s dizzying collection of leaps and scales from her very entrance. Mention of her florid singing must also include the weight with which she managed every ornate bar, each note brandished with due focus and care, and tastefully linked within the structure of the phrase. In the second act, maestro Latham-Koenig dusted off a rarely heard D-Major version of Donna Elvira’s “Mi tradi” (as opposed the version in E-Flat that we’re accustomed to hearing) designed to display the richness of her lower register to great effect. Theatrically, she took great advantage of the possibilities afforded by the updating, and looked like a million bucks in the costumes.

We cannot leave this assessment without mentioning the work of the other Atlanta Opera debut which took place last Saturday, that of stage director Kristine McIntyre. In her reimagining of Mozart’s masterpiece, director McIntyre aimed to update the work through 1930’s monochromatic film noire meets Dick Tracy aesthetic. The production is replete with of shadows, trench coats, and art deco accents, but little in the way of resolving some of the question marks that have plagued the opera for centuries (the true nature of Donna Anna’s grief, Zerlina’s true agenda, etc). To your friends at newoutpost, the update provides striking visual elements that will delight some, but fails to achieve its supposed purpose: to bridge the gap between modern audiences and moral and societal sensibilities in Mozart’s time. Today’s audience may be just as removed from 1930’s gender role tropes as we are to those held in 1787.  With all things being equal, perhaps a case can be made to let the thing just be what it is.

For more information on the remaining performance of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, please visit the company’s website at www.atlantaopera.org

-Daniel Vasquez

 
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