Monday, December 3, 2007

Sex on the Run

While operatic purists often place Mozart's Don Giovanni on an artistic pedestal, the hard and throbbing truth of the matter is that the libretto for this opera focuses on the sexual exploits of an extremely horny man whose stiff dick knows no conscience. In between all of those orgasmic moments when he is ravaging Europe's female population (the Don's sexual achievements include 1,003 conquests in Spain), Mozart's protagonist lives for the intoxicating lure of fresh flesh, the psychosexual challenge of seducing new strangers, the egocentric stimulation of nurturing his libido and the triumphant joy which accompanies each and every one of his ejaculations. In this particular opera, the hero's big squirts are accompanied by many a forceful crescendo.

As they say in the porno industry, "You've cum a long way, baby," and so, for that matter, has my appreciation of one of Mozart's most popular operas. When first introduced to Don Giovanni twenty years ago, I had an extremely difficult time getting into the swing of things (it certainly wasn't because of the music). Indeed, the first production of Don Giovanni that I experienced did little to let the audience in on anything other than the applause due each of its principal character's arias.

As a result, most of the jokes in Lorenzo DaPonte's libretto eluded me and, although I had read the libretto and listened to the album, I could not follow the action onstage and pull all the pieces together. Things have changed remarkably since the advent of Surtitles and, while visiting Canada last month to interview Lotfi Mansouri for Opera Monthly, I had the opportunity to compare two Don Giovanni productions within one week. Their differences in artistic quality, dramatic cohesiveness and audience appreciation proved to be a noteworthy phenomenon.


In Toronto, the Canadian Opera Company's production starred baritone Gino Quilico as the lecherous Spaniard with his father, Louis, filling Leporello's boots for the first time in his long and admirable career. Although the younger Quilico presents a dashingly sexual figure onstage (and knows when to take his shirt off to please the audience) his performance left me feeling uncomfortable. On several recent occasions I've noticed that Gino (a former rock singer) has a tendency to shout his way through a performance and resort to some rather sloppy singing. Although he covers these moments well (and more than adequately compensates for such problems with his appealing stage presence and ingratiating personality) he needs to be more careful when it comes to singing the score as it is written.

As Don Giovanni's frequently abused servant, Leporello, the elder Quilico offered an extremely well-sung and dramatically strong characterization. Tenor Randall Outland's fine Don Ottavio, bass-baritone Jeffrey Wells' stern Commendatore and John Avey's macho Masetto lent sturdy support to the proceedings.

The distaff side of the cast was strengthened immeasurably by Carol Vaness's superlative performance as Donna Anna; a portrayal which has grown immensely over the years in its dramatic intensity, vocal warmth and solid musicianship. While Donna Brown offered an appealing characterization of Zerlina, soprano Rachel Yakar's Donna Elvira (although reasonably well-sung) was not on the same artistic level as Vaness's stunning Donna Anna.

With extremely attractive sets by Lawrence Schafer and period costumes by Suzanne Mess, the performance I attended was handsomely conducted by Mozart specialist Peter Maag. Co-directors Lotfi Mansouri and Graziella Sciutti kept the action moving nicely so that, with the help of COC's Surtitles, the audience derived maximum entertainment value from its evening at the O'Keefe Center. All in all, this was one of the more satisfying performances of Don Giovanni I've experienced in quite some time.


I wish I could be as enthusiastic about L'Opera de Montreal's staging of Don Giovanni but, alas, that performance struck me as a step backward into the production styles of the early 1960s. In comparing my experiences in Toronto and Montreal (and thinking about other situations which have recently allowed me to compare two performances of the same opera wherein one production used Surtitles and the other did not) I am struck by an odd thought. I remember how thrilling it was -- both as a secretary and as a writer -- to progress from manual typewriters and early electric typewriters to Selectrics.

I can still recall how terrified I was to make the switch from a correcting Selectric to a word processor. But as I sat in the Salle Wilfred Pelletier and compared the lack of dramatic tension with what I had experienced at the O'Keefe Center several nights before, I was reminded of what someone said to me when I expressed doubts about my need for a word processor. "Look, if you want to remain in the Dark Ages, be my guest. The choice is yours."

There is no longer any doubt in my mind that the electronic sophistication of a word processor has greatly enhanced my skills as a writer. And I'm convinced that Surtitles have a similar ability to enhance the perception levels of many opera audiences -- including music critics -- whenever a work is performed in a foreign language. L'Opera de Montreal has yet to embrace Surtitles for several reasons. The main problem is that, because the population in the province of Quebec is bilingual, in trying to find a way to project translations above the proscenium in both English and French the opera company's management has decided that it might be better off to let the audience experience each opera in its original language without any visual aids.

Although the crowd gathered in the Salle Wilfred Pelletier responded enthusiastically to the performance I attended, the give and take between the singers and audience came nowhere near the communicative equilibrium which had added so much to the performance in Toronto.
Despite an excitingly visual depiction of Don Giovanni's descent into hell (I'm told Montrealers embrace stage spectacle at any cost) Robert Prevost's sets and costumes often left the opera with a rather tired look.

Allan Monk's rather pudgy Don Giovanni lacked sexual fire and, while I enjoyed Bruno Pola's robust Leporello, the strongest singer among the men proved to be Patrick Power (the New Zealand tenor who appeared in the role of Don Ottavio). Young Phillip Ens was an interesting Masetto; Joseph Rouleau's Commendatore sounded coarse and gravelly but, considering the amplification, was nowhere as insulting to the senses as his performances last fall in the San Francisco Opera's production of Gounod's Romeo et Juliette.

The women fared only slightly better. Ana Pusar's Donna Anna and Anita Soldh's Donna Elvira did not provoke much excitement; Jutta Bokor's Zerlina was pretty to look at and rather light in the vocal department. Although I enjoyed Edward Hillyer's choreography, there were some bizarre moments in Olivier Reichenbach's stage direction which truly confounded me.

Despite the presence of Mario Bernardi on the podium and L'Orchestra Symphonique de Montreal in the pit, L'Opera de Montreal's cast proved to be decidedly less impressive than the well-honed ensemble I had heard in Toronto. And Mozart's Don Giovanni is one opera which demands strong ensemble work from its singers.

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on May 26, 1988.

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