Monday, November 26, 2007

Giovanni's Doom

One of my favorite quotes comes from Act II of Hello, Dolly! when Mrs. Levi wraps her arms around the cash register in Vandergelder's Hay & Feed Store and starts to talk about money. "Money, money, money, money, money!! It's like the sun we walk under. It can kill or cure. The difference between a little bit of money and no money at all is enormous, and it can shatter the world. And the difference between a little bit of money and an enormous amount of money is very slight. Yet that, too, can shatter the world. It's all a question of how it's used," Dolly explains. "As my late husband Ephraim Levi always used to say: 'Money (you should pardon the expression) is a little bit like manure. It doesn't do anyone a bit of good unless it's spread all around, encouraging young things to grow.'"

Although I can't say for sure, I'd bet that money was the key factor which sank two recent productions of Mozart's Don Giovanni. Each was presented in English by an enterprising opera company which specializes in giving young American artists long periods of rehearsal in the hopes of building a strong musicodramatic ensemble. Each production faced certain physical obstacles which could not be ignored. And, because each of these opera companies is the "second" opera company in its city, much of the "glamor money" from individuals and local corporations goes to its competition.


When the folks at Pennsylvania Opera Theatre first described their plans for a new production of Don Giovanni to me, it sounded quite interesting. As part of director Victoria Bussert's "modernized and sensually surrealistic" concept, Donna Anna and Donna Elvira would be portrayed as sexually frustrated women suffering from severe cases of coitus interruptus. Each time a woman was touched by a Don Giovanni clad in white leather, a tell-tale -- translate that to read "cherry-popping" -- blood stain would appear on her costume. I could get into that, at least in theory. But what I witnessed taking place in Philadelphia's Shubert Theatre did not quite mesh with Mozart.

Russ Borski's low-budget sets were, for the most part, the kind of vague plastique-like shapes which came into vogue with Lava Lamps and can still be found, in three-dimensional period styrofoam, operating as scenery on certain rides at Six Flags Over Mid-America. Borski's "modern day" costumes worked best for the men -- especially Don Giovanni and Leporello -- who were dressed to resemble two contemporary "mean and bad" Hispanic dudes.

Although conductor Barbara Silverstein did her best on the podium, this performance suffered from a severe vocal handicap. Because bass-baritone Eric Allen Hanson (Don Giovanni) was battling a cold, he performed about 65% of the title role while Harry Dworchak delivered key segments of the Don's music from the pit. Neither Phyllis Treigle's Donna Elvira, Lauren Flanigan's Donna Anna, William Watson's Don Ottavio, Catherine Stoltz's Zerlina or James Wood's Masetto did much to impress me. Some of the problem seemed like it could have been insufficient rehearsal time. This "preview" performance was certainly little more than a glorified dress rehearsal.

Standing out like a sore thumb from the rest of the cast, however, was Matthew Lau's stunningly sung and suavely acted portrayal of Leporello as the hippest and hip-swingingest Hispanic in all of opera. It should be noted that, at this preview matinee, the theater was packed with a combination of school groups and senior citizens. When the opening curtain rose on a near-nude Don Giovanni undeniably fucking the daylights out of Donna Anna, the kids cheered their approval as the seniors nervously rattled what sounded like an army of plastic bags.


A quick stop in the city many refer to as "The Mistake by the Lake," allowed me to attend the opening night performance of Lyric Opera Cleveland's Don Giovanni production. This company tries to use local singers in its productions, give them ample rehearsal time and bank on their youth and enthusiasm. Sometimes that works; sometimes more polished performers are required to do a composer justice.

Now celebrating its 15th anniversary season, Lyric Opera Cleveland has a tradition of performing opera, in English, with a one-hour "al fresco" intermission break so that people can picnic on the grounds surrounding the Cleveland Institute of Music's Kulas Hall. The threat of rain brought the audience indoors on this occasion so that, during intermission, Tupperware could be heard burping throughout the Cleveland Institute of Music. Try as I might, I must confess that I found it difficult to maintain eye contact during conversations as so many tempting tarts came into view.

Unfortunately, this performance of Don Giovanni proved the old axiom that you get what you pay for. Rusty Smith's sets were well-designed for a small college theatre but, due to insufficient stage facilities, clumsy to manipulate. The costumes he designed (which created a lot of dramatic confusion by blatantly mixing historical periods) tended to look like Thrift Shop composites. With precious little room in which to move about, an overwhelming sense of stage claustrophobia defeated most of Michael McConnell's efforts as a director. The Don's descent to hell, however, was much more thrillingly and theatrically executed than in most of the productions of Mozart's masterpiece that I have seen at large international opera houses.

Kulas Hall poses some distinct problems. The stage is about as tiny as the one used by Opera San Jose and the theatre has no grid from which to fly scenery. Although Steven Larsen did a fine job of conducting Mozart's score, the auditorium suffers from some rather peculiar acoustics which, even from the fourth row, made most of the cast's diction unintelligible. Nevertheless, I enjoyed Donald Sherrill's portrayal of Mozart's classic anti-hero and Connie Dykstra's characterization of Donna Anna. Joan Peterson's Donna Elvira, John Vergilii's Don Ottavio, Richard Lewis's Masetto and Hillary Nicholson's Zerlina rounded out the ensemble.

The next performance of Don Giovanni on my itinerary is to be directed by Peter Sellars at Pepsico Summerfare. I suppose that, with Lyric Opera Cleveland's Don Giovanni and Pennsylvania Opera Theatre's production of Mozart's opera now behind me, I can safely say that I've got "Two Don and one to go."

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on August 17, 1989.

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