Monday, March 1, 2010

Opera review: Second cast excellent in original, stimulating 'Giovanni'

Bass-baritone Daniel Okulitch.


By Rex Hearn

Like it or not, the cutting edge of European set and stage design came hurtling into Palm Beach Opera for its production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni.

Stefano Poda’s creation arrived simultaneously with a cold blast of fresh air. It is visually stimulating and wholly original. The company took a chance on hiring this gifted young Italian director, 39, whose splendid costumes dazzled the eye, whose brilliant lighting caught every mood, and whose cavernous set puzzled and challenged the mind at every turn with its many topsy-turvy drop scenes.

In what his program notes call his "search for aesthetic and operatic unity," Poda -- who also handled the choreography and direction -- has indeed placed his imprint on this production.

The risk involved is enormous, because it seems calculated to satisfy one man’s controlling, self-centered vision. And as a consequence of taking on all these operatic disciplines, something inevitably suffers or is diminished. In Saturday’s performance, it was the projection of the voices and the awkwardly slow pace of Mozart’s dramma giocoso. In opera, as in a lot of enterprises, four heads are better than one.

The singers were excellent, all of them on top form and in good voice, but in Poda’s vast open space they had nothing off which to "bounce" their vocal talents. The set -- three enormous walls, white, white, white, one each side of the stage and one at the back -- had 11 doorways and nowhere to hide. Librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte’s text continually has characters seeking hiding places. After all , this is about a womanizing libertine and his intrigues in small-town Venice (where Poda has moved the action from Spain).

Instead, characters stand exposed, center stage, leaving the audience to imagine they’ve hidden. Engaging the audience in thinking is one thing, but that's hard to do with a bare stage and vast open spaces; filling them with slow-moving ghostlike supernumeraries and six footmen holding silver candelabras does not cut it.

Cecilia Dougherty as the Lady in White.

Another filler, the Lady in White, was dreamily performed by Cecilia Dougherty. Palm Beach Opera audiences are not ready for this "heady" sort of treatment, brilliantly innovative though it is. With more rehearsal time and a couple of tweaks, Poda’s vision could have been greatly improved.

As Don Giovanni, Canadian baritone Daniel Okulitch was outstanding. His lovely high baritone was smooth and supple. Italian bass Luca Tittoto was his clever witted servant, Leporello. His flexible bass sounded exceptional and his acting in the part was just right.

The lovely French-Canadian soprano Alexandra Deshorties (at right) gave a nicely sustained performance as Donna Anna. Her voice was at times thrilling and beautiful, avoiding the shrill overtones so often adopted by women who sing this tragic role. Her lover, Don Ottavio, sung by Italian lyric tenor Francesco Marsiglia, was superb, delivering his two arias with a quality and beauty rarely heard in this role.

French-Canadian mezzo-soprano Michèle Losier (at left) had the thankless task of being the jilted paramour of Don Giovanni, who warns others of his treachery. Losier sang well and acted Donna Elvira convincingly. Soprano Irene Roberts, a Palm Beach Opera Young Artist, was delightful as Zerlina, unsuccessfully seduced by the Don. Her Batti, batti aria was sweetly sung to her betrothed, Masetto, bass Bradley Smoak, also a Young Artist, who acted the jealous innocent and sang well.

Singing the Commendatore was American bass Peter Volpe, and what a great voice he has. Volpe thrilled the audience as he sang "the good conscience" of Don Giovanni from the orchestra stalls. It was an effective piece of direction by Poda, but would have meant more had the two men gone at it on stage, which was Mozart’s own vision. Unfortunately, the Don’s voice was marred by a thick scrim, as he sang his replies to the Commendatore from the back of the stage as he goes down to Hell.

Superlatives abound for the Palm Beach Opera Orchestra playing in the pit under the inspired artistic director, Bruno Aprea, who discovered Poda in Italy last year. Mozart’s music sounded heavenly in their sensitive handling of the score. And compliments also go to Bruce Stasyna for some fine harpsichord accompaniments.

What remains in the mind from this production is Poda’s brave attempt at unified artistry, his magnificent costumes, and the beautiful singing. Look out, Milan!

Rex Hearn has covered opera in South Florida since 1995.

The final performance of Palm Beach Opera's Don Giovanni, featuring Daniel Okulitch, Alexandra Deshorties and Michèle Losier, begins at 2 p.m. today at the Kravis Center. Tickets: $23-$175; call 561-833-7888 (PB Opera) or the Kravis Center (832-7469), or visit www.pbopera.org or www.kravis.org.

1 comment:

Marcio Bezerra said...

I could not agree with you more fully! This was the BEST production of Palm Beach Opera I have ever watched. Though I went on Friday, the cast was equaly magnificent. But the lighting, the backdrops and the revolutionary staging was what impressed me the most. Once again, Bravo Bruno!