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Ionarts in Santa Fe: 'Don Giovanni'

Kate Lindsey (Zerlina), Corey McKern (Masetto), Elza van den Heever (Donna Anna), Susanna Phillips (Donna Elvira), Charles
Workman (Don Ottavio), and Lucas Meachem (Don Giovanni) in Don Giovanni, Santa Fe Opera, 2009 (photo by Ken Howard)

In the competition for most produced composer in the history of Santa Fe Opera, Mozart just edges out Richard Strauss. Over five years of covering Santa Fe Opera there has not been a season without Mozart -- Figaro in 2008, Così in 2007, Magic Flute in 2006, and an absolutely show-stopping Lucio Silla in 2005. This takes us back in the cycle to Don Giovanni, the 2004 production of which was revived this year, in what turned out to be the least interesting of the five operas at Santa Fe, at least as heard on Saturday night. The staging by Chas Rader-Shieber, who directed the multichromatic Tamerlano last season at Washington National Opera, sets the Don as a sort of pistol-wielding outlaw, costumed like Black Bart in a bordello-vermilion Old West. It was, by report, fairly striking with Mariusz Kwiecień in the title role in 2004, but this year's cast of former apprentices and other young singers afforded few vocal revelations. In fact, many of the singers, some of whom have impressed in other roles, seemed miscast.

Lucas Meachem (Don Giovanni) and Elza van den Heever (Donna Anna) in Don Giovanni, Santa Fe Opera, 2009 (photo by Ken Howard)
While I singled out former apprentice Keith Jameson's performance as the Apprentice in Billy Budd last summer -- and happily saw him return in this summer's productions of The Letter and La Traviata -- Lucas Meachem's performance as Donald in that opera completely passed me by. Yet here he was as Don Giovanni and sounding vocally outclassed by both Matthew Roses’s deadpan Leporello and Charles Workman's somewhat unsubtle Don Ottavio. Now, true, the recent recording conducted by René Jacobs has forced us to reconsider long-held ideas about this opera, including the characterization of the title role. The singer who premiered the role in Prague, Luigi Bassi, was only 21 years old, and Da Ponte identified the Don as a libertine youth (Un giovane estremamente licenzioso), or "a sort of Cherubino five years older" as Jacobs put it. Still it does seem that Don Giovanni needs some vocal power to back up his inveterate swaggering.

Matthew Rose, who reportedly had a memorable turn as Bottom in the Glyndebourne Midsummer Night's Dream a few years ago, was vocally solid as Leporello and skewered the role with deadly accurate comic timing. He added a vitriolic side to the character, too, underscoring the real meaning of his revolutionary but sometimes tossed off opening lines, "Voglio far il gentiluomo, e non voglio più servir." Charles Workman's Don Ottavio, who appeared somewhat clerical in severe black with a rosary around his neck, was broad and blunt of tone, if a little shouty. It was strange that the production would include both Dalla sua pace and Il mio tesoro for a singer that did not have more subtlety (the Zerlina-Leporello was, as usual, cut). Corey McKern's Masetto was rounded and meek, while Harold Wilson was unable to muster much menace with his voice or presence as the Commendatore, even getting a laugh when a double popped up in an unexpected place during the Stone Guest banquet scene. Of all the reactions one might want to provoke during that particular hair-raising scene, laughter is not one of them.

Other Articles:

Craig Smith, Consummate ensemble enlivens Santa Fe Opera's 'Don Giovanni' revival (Santa Fe New Mexican, July 19)

D. S. Crafts, Review: Don Giovanni (Albuquerque Journal, July 20)

John Stege, Blustering and Blasting (Santa Fe Reporter, July 22)
The women seemed no more properly cast, with the otherwise splendid Susanna Phillips unable to match the luster and brightness of her fuchsia gown as Donna Elvira. South African soprano Elza van den Heever had more of the incisive tone one associates with Donna Elvira, but she was cast as Donna Anna, in which role she seemed a little strident. Even Kate Lindsey, a remarkable mezzo-soprano, did not seem right as Zerlina (Mozart calls for a soprano in the role), a rich, tannic voice, souring to the flat side of the pitch on some notes in Batti, batti, that went with an overly cutesy, even sappy characterization.

Conductor Lawrence Renes, who has clearly studied that René Jacobs recording, kept things interesting by pushing many of the tempi brutally forward, especially in the blur of a Stone Guest banquet scene, with his edgy, frenetic gestures. The singers, who were apparently rehearsed at the faster tempi, often rushed ahead of the orchestra, which often seemed to get caught out by the unexpected tempo choices. Miraculously, the ball scene at the end of Act I, with its three different dance tunes ultimately in three different meters played by three "orchestras" marked in the score, came off well, although it helped that the "orchestras," though separated from one another, were all kept in the pit instead of on stage. Other high points included the sparse but effective accompaniment of the recitatives on a fortepiano (performer uncredited), and Giuseppina Ciarla's fine performance of the mandolin part of Deh vieni alla finestra on an honest-to-God mandolin. Did the director not give a thought to having her play the mandolin part on the stage with Don Giovanni?

Four performances of Don Giovanni remain at Santa Fe Opera, on August 13, 21, 24, and 27.

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