Review: ‘Don Giovanni’ wows ’em at the Wheeler
August 22, 2009
ASPEN – A vital, dynamic and superbly sung “Don Giovanni” completed a remarkably strong summer for the Aspen Opera Theater Center. Earlier there were powerful, across-the-board performances of “La Boheme” and “The Rape of Lucretia.” Thursday at the Wheeler Opera House the singers and young conductor James Gaffigan did full justice to the crowning achievement of Mozart and his librettist da Ponte. It plays for the third and final time Saturday.
Director Edward Berkeley’s production updated the scene, originally set in 17th-century Spain, to what seemed to be mid-20th-century Spain. At least most of the costumes reflected that era, with the Don in an all-white suit and the women in clothing reminiscent of a 1930s movie. A diagonal wall with a series of gated arches facing a spiral stone staircase leading up to a rounded terrace perched on a wide stone cylinder could have been from anytime.
The updating did no serious damage to the story, and some minor fudging on the surtitles avoided anachronisms. The biggest downside visually was the lighting. Most of Act II should take place in near-darkness. Even though several plot points hinge on the characters being unable to see each other, the stage was flooded with light. In the final scene, as the surviving cast celebrates the title character being dragged to hell, green shadows made them all look ghoulish.
Those issues aside, what made this so good was a cast of young singers who looked their parts and sang them with accuracy and panache. In the pit, Gaffigan moved the pace smartly, and kept the ensembles on track to deliver their full measure. Except for some iffy intonation in the violins, the orchestra played with style.
Everything revolves around Giovanni, and Donovan Singletary had the stage presence and dashing looks to carry it off. When he tried to seduce a woman, nothing else seemed to matter, perfect for the Don. He could be menacing, too, a critical component. After all, the Don is a nasty character, and the audience can’t be rooting for him in the end. His singing was strong, though not as nuanced as his acting, better in the loud parts, less so in moments like the serenade “Deh vieni alla finestra.”
As Leporello, the Don’s servant, Adam Paul Lau deployed a colorful bass-baritone, and he made the signature “Catalogue aria” a joy. He was a perfect pairing with Singletary in every scene, creating a complete character vocally and dramatically.
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The star singer in the cast, however, was soprano Yoosun Park as Donna Anna, the don’s first attempted victim. The character spends the opera trying to avenge the killing of her father (by the don), and gets two thrilling arias. Park was devastating in both of them, delivering an “Or sai chi l’onore” that ranks as one of the vocal highlights of the summer. (And that includes the professionals in the big music tent.) “Non mi dir” in Act II was almost as fine. She has a big, pointedly focused voice and impeccable diction, an actor’s way with phrasing, belying by a petite frame.
As Donna Elvira, one of the don’s former victims who joins the posse looking for vengeance, Rachel Sliker deployed a steely soprano and blasted her way through the role, perhaps trying to overcome a silly wig and awful, ill-fitting dresses. (Wigs in general were more a nuisance than a help in this production.) Her “Mi tradi,” however, had terrific power.
Soprano Debra Stanley played Zerlina as an over-sexed young thing, which worked well in the scenes where she tries to mollify Masseto, her new husband. References to sado-masochism added zip to “Batti, batti” and she ended “Vedrai, carino” prostrating herself for her man. Though her voice is not as creamy as many Zerlinas, she was effective.
On the male side, tenor Samuel Read Levine struggled with the long phrasing required of Anna’s fiance Don Ottavio, but managed all the high-lying music without other strain. Baritone Adrian Rosas made a solid Masseto and bass Paul An could have been more menacing as the Commendatore.
But the overall effect was splendid, completing a great summer for opera lovers.
Earlier in the week, the brilliant bassist Edgar Meyer put on his classical music hat and sat in Tuesday with the American String Quartet for a charming romp through Boccherini’s “String Quintet in A major”. He contributed a deft bass line and an all-too-brief cadenza, and the musicians decided to add Boccherini’s famous minuet as a playful extra.
Tobias Picker’s “String Quartet No. 2”, commissioned by the quartet, proved more of a challenge. Though Picker’s opera music sings gratifyingly, this one sounded like a cat chasing its tail.
The seamless playing that characterized their earlier concert was present again for this one, however, employed most effectively in the weaving counterpoint of Brahms’ “String Quartet No. 2”. The program opened with a pleasant surprise, “Four Diversions”, written in 1930 by the mostly forgotten Russian-American composer Louis Gruenberg. Witty, endearing and filled with light jazzy references, the music deserves to be heard more often, especially when played as nimbly as the ASQ did it.
Vladimir Feltsman usually brings his own approach to Bach. It’s never standard issue, but it’s also never boring. He takes on “The Well-Tempered Clavier Book I” Saturday in a Harris Hall special event. The season ends tomorrow with Verdi’s electrifying “Requiem”, with a fine quartet of singers and the redoubtable Leonard Slatkin on the podium.