Men Behaving Badly

Barlow once again leads a high-energy ensemble in “Don Giovanni”

Director Stephen Barlow returns to the Santa Fe Opera and directs a boisterous ensemble in Don Giovanni. (photo by Curtis Brown for the Santa Fe Opera)

In his lecture last weekend preceding Mozart’s Don Giovanni, educator Oliver Prezant alluded to the theory that to qualify as a comedy, a dramatic work must end with a marriage. That specific idea owes itself to Lord Byron, who famously pronounced:

“All tragedies are ended with a death; all comedies are ended with a marriage. The future states of both are left to faith.”

Under that prescription, Don Giovanni falls into the tragedy camp, but in Director Stephen Barlow’s production at the Santa Fe Opera this season, laughter abounds. I will admit, I’m among the throngs who loved Barlow’s 2022 production of Rossini’s The Barber of Seville—seeing it twice (three times if one counts the Opera in the Park screening)—and eagerly anticipating his return this season.

Back to Byron. His maxim appears in the long satirical poem Don Juan about the legendary Spanish lothario who serves as inspiration for Mozart and librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte’s Don Giovanni. Barlow pulls in one more man with dubious morals and matching initials: Dorian Gray, from Oscar Wilde’s novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, and sets the opera in Victorian London, an era with rising social tensions and an expanding middle class.

L: Nicholas Newton as Leporello and Ryan Speedo Green as Don Giovanni are a dynamic duo in this year’s production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni. (photo by Curtis Brown for the Santa Fe Opera)

As James M. Keller notes in his essay on the opera for this season’s festival catalog, Don Giovanni critiques society in part through an ensemble cast that incorporates characters from all of its stations. In choosing to relocate the opera from 17th-century Seville to 19th-century England, Barlow and scenic and costume designer Yannis Thavoris took cues from film adaptations of Wilde’s book, including a scene in which Dorian Gray holds a briefcase embossed with his initials. In an interview also appearing in the season catalog, Barlow says he and Thavoris “took care to be highly specific” in the set design’s “atmospheric details” depicting the Victorian era. Like Don Giovanni, Wilde’s titular character’s moral absences (Gray preserves his youth, beauty and hedonistic tendencies while his portrait absorbs his ages and sings; things end poorly) serve to highlight the author’s view of his society’s hypocrisies (for his efforts, Wilde’s only novel sparked scandal for its homoerotic subtext and played a role in Wilde’s conviction several years later for “gross indecency,” aka sex with men).

Barlow’s choice to situate Mozart’s opera through Wilde’s lens thus makes for a fun visual experience and a heady one for viewers in the mindset to read some epic poetry, a novel and catch a few films in advance of seeing the opera. But those heading in cold will also enjoy the show, thanks to tremendous ensemble and individual performances. As was the case with Barlow’s Barber cast, Giovanni’s work together comfortably and with a great sense of humor.

In the course of the opera’s two acts and 31/2 hour run time (counting intermission), Don Giovanni indulges his insatiable appetite for conquest, but his real crime is the murder of the father of one of the woman he targets.

In addition to possessing a commanding voice, Grammy Award-winning bass-baritone Ryan Speedo Green exudes charm as the seductive and dangerous Don Giovanni. He is ably partnered with former Santa Fe Opera apprentice Nicholas Newton—who debuted in Barlow’s 2022 Barber as Don Basilio—as Giovanni’s servant Leporello. Green and Newton’s rapport on stage and the witty execution of the characters’ identity swap in Act 2 both serve as highlights in the production.

Soprano Rachael Wilson’s performance as the betrayed Donna Elvira, who continues to pursue (and love) Don Giovanni, also stands out, both for Wilson’s hilarious and physical performance, as well as her vocal facility in this key—and large—role. Soprano and 2024 SFO Apprentice Rachel Fitzgerald makes her debut as grief-stricken Donna Anna, one of Don Giovanni’s prey, whose father the Commendatore (Solomon Howard) Don Giovanni murders. Fitzgerald came in as a replacement, and has a beautiful clear voice that conveys the anguish of her character well. She will play the role again on July 10, before soprano Rachel Willis-Sørensen assumes it for the rest of the run (Sørensen also sings the role of the Marschallin in this season’s Der Rosenkavalier).

As noted, the large cast works well together, particularly during the party scene in Act 1, following working-class Zerlina’s wedding to Masetto (a terrific bass William Guanbo Su, making his SFO debut here). Soprano Liv Redpath was wonderful as Zerlina and I look forward to her Susanna in The Marriage of Figaro next season.

Conductor Harry Bicket masterfully leads the orchestra through the range of emotions in Mozart’s score, which capture the comedy and joy of Don Giovanni’s tale, alongside its grief. Both, of course, are as natural as life and death. As for the opera’s moral, in which evildoers eventually receive just punishments—here’s hoping.

Don Giovanni

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Libretto by Lorenzo Da Ponte

8:30 pm, July 10; 8 pm, July 29, Aug. 3, 6, 16, 21, 23

Seated ticket prices range from $37 to $409. SRO is $15. First time buyers with New Mexico ID can receive 40% off a pair of tickets. Call or visit the Box Office for the most up to date information and pricing, or visit santafeopera.org.

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