Friday, June 14, 2013

Cincinnati Opera's spellbinding 'Don Giovanni'

"The Rake Punished" are the first words in the original title of the opera we know as "Don Giovanni," and Cincinnati Opera's season-opening production of Mozart's masterpiece restores the moral of the old Don Juan story to its rightful place.

As seen Thursday night in the first of two performances at Cincinnati Music Hall, this "Don Giovanni" gives an unpleasant edge to the title character, despite the gusto with which Lucas Meachem portrays him. We are made to feel his eventual punishment is fully justified.

Lorenzo da Ponte's witty libretto lends plenty of support for characterizing the dissolute nobleman as absolutely focused on seducing women, not letting anything stand in his way. But some productions minimize the dark side and make the Don's eventual comeuppance — and the surviving characters' final chorus — seem tacked on to the tale of a fast-moving rascal we are disposed to like.

Director Tomer Zvulun allows the Don to have his fun, of course, and Meachem is fully up  to the assignment, both vocally and dramatically. "Finch' han dal vino,"  the most concentrated exposition of what Giovanni lives for, was taken almost too fast for the well-schooled Meachem to deal with. But that supports the director's apparent view that the protagonist's sex drive is nearly pathological and out of control.

At the Don's party, when everyone is bellowing lustily about the joys of freedom, the ghostly appearance of the slain Commendatore rattles the host momentarily. Giovanni shakes off the vision, and it's clear the apparition is not there to remind him of his guilt (as Banquo's ghost does to Macbeth) but to indicate the murderer's future doom. And Zvulun wants us to feel much more uneasy about how the Commendatore died than Don Giovanni does, because he stages the murder as a sneak attack on the old man after Leporello has distracted him during the sword fight.

The Don doesn't live for a variety of pleasures, despite what is meant to be a showcase of his musical skill in the lovely serenade "Deh, vieni al finestra," sung with melting legato phrasing by Meachem. He wants one thing only, and this is most deviously illustrated by his relationship to the peasant bride Zerlina, coquettishly portrayed by Alexandra Schoeny in this production.

The seductive  "La ci darem la mano," begun smoothly by Meachem and gathering psychological impact as a duet involving Zerlina, was one of the performance's highlights. Despite her susceptibility to the Don's charms, Schoeny's Zerlina was convincingly devoted to her intended bridegroom, Masetto (Ryan Kuster). By having Masetto strike her before she sings "Batti, batti, o bel Masetto," Zvulun takes some of the sting out of Zerlina's asking forgiveness by inviting him to beat her. The tender song thus becomes her way of shaming him for his violent outburst while apologizing at the same time.

Leporello (Burak Bilgili) and Don Giovanni (Lucas Meachem)
From the moment right after the overture when Leporello (Burak Bilgili) emerges through a trap door to grumble tunefully about the weariness of his subordinate position in life, the audience becomes accustomed to the importance of the nether regions, where everything bad, from the inconvenient to the diabolical, may be hidden. When his "catalog aria" makes it clear to Donna Elvira just how extensive the Don's international sexual conquests have been, volume after volume is pulled up through one of the doors.

Jonathan Miller, who directed the work years ago for English National Opera, has written of its "restless and unhoused" characters, so hard for opera singers to inhabit.  This quality is reflected in the set design — abstract, placeless and forbidding — with shiny, sliding walls and empty frames on various planes filling up much of the space above the raked floor and those mysterious trap doors. Apt 18th-century costumes give the characters a falsely vivid connectedness to time and place, but in reality there is not much of a physical environment anyone can relate to.

The next-to-last scene is perhaps the most oddly staged. The production team clearly wants to avoid the cliche of horned imps with pitchforks rising from hellfire to pull Giovanni to perdition. So the infernal chorus, popping up through trap doors, has the same featureless foreboding as the Commendatore's ghost, of which there are three. Only the middle one, the majestic-sounding basso Nathan Stark, engages in dialogue with Giovanni, to some of the most bone-chilling music ever written.

I'm at a loss to understand why the director wanted a Commendatore trio. I'm also not sure why there is a profusion of candelabras at the banquet the Don has set for the Commendatore and precious little food. The Don, in some productions styled a kind of gourmand, again here is made to seem focused only on sexual dalliance, so fondling and groping a willing young woman is his main activity until the stone guest's arrival.

About the more important women: Nicole Cabell was thrilling as Donna Elvira, playing intensely the victim-as-stalker, determined to forestall further sexual predations by the lover who has abandoned her shortly before. Her facial expressions and lithe physical movement were advantages in conveying the mixed motivations of a wronged woman harboring a thinly veiled belief that Giovanni should be exclusively hers. Giovanni boasts at one point that to be faithful to one woman would mean being cruel to all the others; Elvira prefers that Giovanni were cruel to all the others, but she fails to realize he is well past reform. No wonder she opts in the last scene to enter a convent.

Angela Meade played Donna Anna, singlemindedly seeking revenge for her father's death at the Don's hands. The famous ambiguity as to how far her own seduction by the Don had proceeded before the Commendatore interrupted the tryst is nicely played in this production.
Certainly Meade's powerful voice went far to show Donna Anna's insistence that her version of the incident be accepted by her lover, Don Ottavio, as a charge to become her relentless champion and shelve his amorous intentions. Aaron Blake as Don Ottavio made a noble attempt vocally not to seem a milksop, but devotion melodically expressed can't redeem the character's essential weakness.

Roberto Minczuk conducted the performance, drawing fine characterization from the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra of the ever-changing dramatic situation. Coordination with the stage was mostly first-rate, with some slippage in the faster numbers. Given so many superb voices in the cast, the ensembles never failed to make their point. The comedy also received its due, but the production never strayed far from conveying an atmosphere of moral bleakness amid the musical glories.

The final performance will be at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, June 15.