Sunday, May 15, 2011

Opera review: Busy, smart 'Giovanni' ends FGO season in entertaining style

David Pittsinger and Georgia Jarman in Don Giovanni.
(Photo by Gaston de Cardenas)

By Greg Stepanich

FORT LAUDERDALE‭ ‬– More so than most operas,‭ ‬Don Giovanni presents its audience with a puzzle:‭ ‬Is it a tragedy or a comedy‭?

The Romantics of the‭ ‬19th century saw it as an exercise in decadence and darkness,‭ ‬and until recently it was common to leave out the final scene,‭ ‬and end the opera with the licentious Don dragged screaming into Hell.‭

But surely seeing it as a comedy,‭ ‬if not quite a‭ ‬buffa one,‭ ‬is what its creators had in mind.‭ ‬A lighthearted story with a moral,‭ ‬but a moral its original audiences were always conscious of,‭ ‬and one that was the last gasp of the‭ ‬memento mori‭ ‬that‭ ‬was ever-present in the daily life of the West until‭ ‬the Romantic era.‭

It‭’‬s much easier to see that if Mozart‭’‬s opera is presented with laughs in mind,‭ ‬and director John Pascoe‭’‬s earthy,‭ ‬funny take on the score made for a successful,‭ ‬highly satisfying end to the Florida Grand Opera‭’‬s‭ ‬70th season Saturday night at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts.‭

This‭ ‬Giovanni,‭ ‬set in some sort of mixed time frame of‭ ‬18th-century Spain and‭ ‬1950s Italian cinema,‭ ‬was‭ ‬full of busy,‭ ‬inventive movement,‭ ‬near-slapstick comedy and frank sexuality,‭ ‬most notably in the final banquet scene.‭ ‬There,‭ ‬the Don,‭ ‬whose onstage orchestra consisted of beautiful young women in nightwear,‭ ‬asks Donna Elvira to eat with him,‭ ‬then pointedly sticks his head between the legs of a leggy blonde in a camisole stretched out on the table.

A little much,‭ ‬perhaps,‭ ‬but it was the logical culmination of the very physical way the Don was portrayed all night,‭ ‬and it also was backed up by some fine singing and a first-class orchestra that beautifully rendered this marvelous score.

As Giovanni,‭ ‬the baritone David Pittsinger demonstrated good acting chops and a voice of an almost-conversational clarity and considerable strength.‭ ‬He was at his most affecting in moments such as his‭ ‬Deh vieni alla finestra,‭ ‬when he could let the warmer,‭ ‬lyric side of his voice show,‭ ‬and to excellent effect.‭ ‬He was‭ ‬a believable Giovanni,‭ ‬a handsome,‭ ‬slim‭ ‬man with plenty of money and confidence,‭ ‬and credible as an object of female desire,‭ ‬even if older‭ ‬than‭ ‬the libretto suggests.

Another fine lyrical male voice was that of‭ ‬tenor‭ ‬Andrew Bidlack as Don Ottavio,‭ ‬who in his two uxorious arias‭ ‬– Dalla sua pace and‭ ‬Il mio tesoro‭ ‬– sang with‭ ‬unforced loveliness and an exciting bigness that suggested‭ ‬a‭ ‬Pinkerton or Rodolfo in Bidlack‭’‬s future.‭ ‬He was not able to sustain that level throughout the opera,‭ ‬but he came close,‭ ‬and that this was his eighth performance in the role might have had something to do with it.

The two‭ ‬chief female leads in the all-American cast‭ ‬– sopranos Jacquelyn Wagner as Donna Anna and Georgia Jarman as Donna Elvira‭ ‬– also sang quite well throughout the night.‭ ‬Wagner‭ ‬has a high-floating,‭ ‬silvery quality‭ ‬to her strong voice‭ ‬that was most evident in her pretty,‭ ‬sensitive reading of‭ ‬Non mi dir in the closing moments of Act II.

Jarman‭’‬s brassier voice and more involved‭ ‬acting were very enjoyable to see and hear,‭ ‬and she showed real range in the way she led into her‭ ‬Mi tradí quell‭’‬alma ingrata:‭ ‬this was a woman in emotional pain,‭ ‬and she showed that dramatically by singing most of the recitative leading into it very softly‭ ‬– a risky move,‭ ‬but one that worked well.

Soprano Brittany Ann Renee Robinson,‭ ‬who like Wagner and Jarman was making her debut with FGO in this opera,‭ ‬made quite a good Zerlina.‭ ‬She has a lightly colored voice with a top that expands easily when more power is called for,‭ ‬and her‭ ‬Batti,‭ ‬batti and‭ ‬Vedrai,‭ ‬carino were tastefully and winningly sung.

Baritone Jonathan G.‭ ‬Michie,‭ ‬an excellent Ping earlier this season in FGO‭’‬s‭ ‬Turandot,‭ ‬was a‭ ‬mostly‭ ‬strong Masetto,‭ ‬though his voice lost heft toward the end of the evening.‭ ‬As Leporello,‭ ‬bass Tom Corbeil was great fun to watch,‭ ‬though less engaging musically‭; ‬his voice was clear but underpowered throughout,‭ ‬which took away some of the vocal interest at crucial moments such as his side comments during his boss‭’‬ confrontation with the stone guest.

Morris Robinson and David Pittsinger in Don Giovanni.
(Photo by Gaston de Cardenas)



Bass Morris Robinson‭’‬s huge,‭ ‬creamy voice was excellently suited for his role as the Commendatore,‭ ‬and the‭ ‬stentorian way he sustained his notes made his singing sound like part of the trombone choir that accompanies his words in‭ ‬the graveyard scene.

Conductor Andrew Bisantz had a wonderful group of musicians at his‭ ‬disposal in the pit,‭ ‬and they played exceptionally well,‭ ‬with the kind of‭ ‬thorough polish that‭ ‬highlights all the things we admire about Mozart:‭ ‬his daring harmonies,‭ ‬splendid‭ ‬melodies and canny‭ ‬scoring,‭ ‬and above all his ability to bring the characters on stage alive in the orchestra.‭ ‬

Above all,‭ ‬it was Pascoe‭’‬s staging of this Washington National Opera production‭ ‬that‭ ‬made this‭ ‬Giovanni‭ ‬so much fun to see.‭ ‬Some of it didn‭’‬t quite work‭ ‬– the‭ ‬mobs looking for Giovanni at the beginning of Act II were shouting‭ ‬something‭ ‬stagy,‭ ‬and‭ ‬the women demons that circled‭ ‬the nobleman before he went through the door to perdition came off as hokey‭ ‬– but‭ ‬in most of it,‭ ‬Pascoe kept things busy and used all of his playing space‭ ‬in‭ ‬smart,‭ ‬entertaining ways.

One important pitfall‭ ‬that‭ ‬Pascoe avoided was the first half of‭ ‬the second act,‭ ‬which can come to a complete halt when all the arias from the Viennese version of the score are added in.‭ ‬Pascoe set them up in mini-tableaux‭; ‬Elvira‭ ‬confesses her continuing love for Giovanni while occasionally clinging to a‭ ‬ column for support,‭ ‬and Anna tells Ottavio‭ ‬that she must mourn her father while the two are staring at a giant,‭ ‬Hamlet‭’‬s father-style portrait of the dead Commendatore.

Pascoe‭’‬s moments of broader comedy‭ ‬– a mob does vaudeville‭’‬s slowly-I-turn shtick,‭ ‬and Leporello gets one over on Giovanni only to walk straight into a‭ ‬door jamb‭ ‬– were not out of place,‭ ‬and indeed,‭ ‬this was‭ ‬a Giovanni in‭ ‬which‭ ‬the‭ ‬house laughed loudly,‭ ‬and laughed often.

Marry that with superlative orchestral playing and a high level of singing that was‭ ‬usually‭ ‬good in solos and very fine in ensembles,‭ ‬and‭ ‬you had a Don Giovanni that knew what it was about,‭ ‬and in which the contrast between comedy and tragedy‭ ‬were not in conflict,‭ ‬but part and parcel of the same story‭ ‬– something,‭ ‬in fact,‭ ‬like life itself.

‭***

The‭ ‬71st season of Florida Grand Opera will feature four productions,‭ ‬beginning Nov.‭ ‬12-Dec.‭ ‬3‭ ‬with Federico Moreno Torroba‭’‬s zarzuela‭ ‬Luisa Fernanda,‭ ‬a first for this company.‭ ‬Puccini‭’‬s‭ ‬La Rondine,‭ ‬another‭ ‬first for FGO,‭ ‬is next‭ (‬Jan.‭ ‬21-Feb.‭ ‬4‭)‬,‭ ‬followed by Verdi‭’‬s‭ ‬Rigoletto‭ (‬last staged in‭ ‬2006,‭ ‬from Jan.‭ ‬28-Feb.‭ ‬18‭)‬,‭ ‬and Gounod‭’‬s‭ ‬Romeo et Juliette‭ (‬last seen in‭ ‬2004,‭ ‬from April‭ ‬21-May‭ ‬12‭)‬.‭ ‬For more information or for tickets,‭ ‬call‭ ‬800-741-1010‭ ‬or visit‭ ‬www.fgo.org.

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