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Woah. SFO’s production of Don Giovanni looks pretty goth, right?
Ken Howard

Delivering Da Don

Mozart’s go-to-hell opus

July 13, 2016, 12:00 am

Want a cutting-edge, new-fangled take on Mozart’s Don Giovanni? Check out a few recent notorieties: the crazily dysfunctional family in Dmitri Tcherniakov’s version, seen first at Aix in 2010. Or Michael Haneke’s 2006 production for Paris, all about the Don’s soulless, ruthless corporate life. Or go further back to Calixto Bieito, his notorious 2001 English National Opera show, replete with body fluids and oral sex.

Well, never mind. The Santa Fe Opera’s mostly conventional new production, with Ron Daniels as stage director, won’t ruffle a feather. Expect powdered wigs and period costumes; there’s not a flaming dumpster in sight. With one or two glaring exceptions, the visuals are sufficiently inoffensive, reminding us that when you get right down to it, opera’s about only three things: Voice. Voice. And voice. In this, the company’s 60th anniversary outing of Don, the ears definitely have it.

All three Mozart/Lorenzo Da Ponte collaborations have been key to the company’s repertory ever since ’57’s Così fan tutte (11 productions to date), with Le nozze di Figaro (17 productions) in top place as the most-performed piece in SFO’s history. Don Giovanni lagged behind with only eight showings here.

A possible excuse? Note Caruso’s famous quip about casting Il Trovatore: “You only need the four greatest singers in the world.” For Mozart’s Don? More like five or six. Plus a brilliant orchestra. And all able to traverse a stylistic minefield sowed almost indiscriminately with the tragic, the comic and the terrifying—all played beneath a dark cloud of divine retribution.

Figaro, the first Mozart/Da Ponte collaboration, used Beaumarchais’ play as an armature just begging for Da Ponte to fashion a libretto. No simple task, that, but a deal less complicated than concocting a text to freshen up the worn-out, old-hat Don Juan story. Not to worry—Da Ponte and Mozart had their way with Giovanni, creating a dramaturgical potpourri that happens to be, in many opinions, the greatest opera ever, libretto and all.

SFO’s youthful cast, radiating energy and aplomb, sails through the score, with six of the eight principal singers making their SFO debuts. First among equals, Leah Crocetto sings Donna Anna, Giovanni’s vengeful pursuer. We recall her smashing debut in 2010’s Maometto II; Crocetto’s generous, fearless soprano makes an even greater impression here. Her ferocious attacks in “Or sai chi l’onore,” the confidant, swift coloratura and precise acuti of “Non mi dir” provide a searing characterization.

Keri Alkema, in an SFO debut, sings the unhappy Donna Elvira—by turns furious and forlorn, mocked and abandoned—with a fresh vitality we encounter only rarely. Her passionate accompanied recitative (Mozart’s greatest), “In quali eccissi, o Numi,” and aria, “Mi tradi,” are in themselves worth a visit to the Crosby Theatre.

Welsh soprano Rhian Lois makes her American debut as a warm, clear-voiced Zerlina, who charms and delights by turns. In “Batti, batti” and “Vedrai carino,” she simply caresses her arias with convincing sweetness, despite draggy tempos from John Nelson’s orchestra. Her Masetto, Jarrett Ott, though billed as an apprentice singer, is anything but. A solid actor and a deeply impressive baritone, Ott’s on his way.

The oft-dismissed role of Anna’s suitor, Don Ottavio, receives the deluxe treatment from Lithuanian tenor Edgaras Montvidas, in another SFO debut. His noble stage presence is enhanced by a “Dalla sua pace” that grows and gleams, and a supple, surpassing account of “Il mio tesoro.” As the Commandante, Soloman Howard contributes a glowering basso profundo, grimly effective as the Stone Guest.

Kyle Ketelsen, an antic Leporello who nearly walks away with the show, deserves a special word, as I’ve never heard nor seen better in the role. He’s got the vocal goods, sure enough, plus he’s a thoroughbred theatrical animal in the bargain. Leers and sneers, pratfalls, cynical asides—Ketelsen all but swallows up the scenery.

"Incidentally, my low-brow sensibilities relish the moment when Giovanni’s going-to-hell howl fills the theater."

Enter Daniel Okulitch, familiar here as both The Last Savage and Count Almaviva, who now embodies the Don. He’s a youthful, lithe and busy libertine (has he had time for his 2,065 enumerated conquests already?), swashbuckling about the stage with admirable energy and an aristocratic air. Okulitch’s engaging bass-baritone makes for a suave, silken characterization, nowhere more effective than in his honeyed serenade, “Deh vieni.

As noted, Nelson’s orchestra is a sometime thing. His overture lacked balance and accuracy. Woodwinds shine throughout, but the cello obbligato to “Batti, batti was nearly inaudible. Nelson keeps things moving along, but blares from the brass vulgarize the damnation scene, and those scary D minor scales go for little.

And then—Daniels’ directorial touches: Why isn’t Giovanni’s identity hidden, as it has to be, at the opening? Must Giovanni bathe center-stage in a gilded bathtub? What happened to the nodding statua gentilissima? And, come on: powdered flunkies providing the demonic chorus?

Scenic designer Riccardo Hernandez provides a flashy, monumental death’s-head that, alas, upstages the action. Emily Rebholz’s costumes, despite Giovanni’s black shorties, get the job done handsomely. Credit also Marcus Doshi’s effective lighting and Peter Nigrini’s often puzzling projections onto that omnipresent momento mori.

Incidentally, my low-brow sensibilities relish the moment when Giovanni’s going-to-hell howl fills the theater. Who can forget Cesare Siepi’s manly gargle or George London’s frenzied shriek? So, Mr. Okulitch—more time in the studio, I’m afraid.

Don Giovanni:
8:30 pm Wednesday, July 13. $15-$307.
Santa Fe Opera House,
301 Opera Drive


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