Kentucky Opera closed out its 2012-2013 season with a sold-out production of Don Giovanni that delivered on its promise of translating the classic tale to the shadowy, seductive atmosphere that marked the golden era of film noir.
Given Director Kristine McIntyre's concept of the opera, Eric Allgeier (set) and Connie Yun (lighting) combined their crafts to create a design that was a character in itself. A city of dark alleys and long shadows offers ample opportunities for the dangerously charming Don Giovanni to prey upon women. Though a practiced seducer by reputation, his near rape of Donna Anna sinks him to a new level, and precipitates his confrontation with the lady's father, the Commendatore. Following a struggle in the street, Giovanni murders the outraged father and slips away into the shadows. The drama that follows brings together an array of people who have reason to take revenge on Giovanni, but this production emphasizes that it is Giovanni's own tortured conscience that finally brings about his destruction.
Swathed in trench coats and fedoras, smoking languidly on street corners, Giovanni (Ben Wager) and his much-abused servant Leporello (Donovan Singletary) try to keep the pursuers at bay, even as Giovanni continues his campaign to bed as many women as possible. In addition to Donna Anna (Jan Cornelius) and her fiance Don Ottavio (Taylor Stayton) who suspect Giovanni's crime, the scorned Donna Elvira (Deborah Selig) wants her betrayer to pay for his lies. His failed attempt to seduce the country girl Zerlina (Katy Lindhart) away from her bridegroom Masetto (Noel Bouley), adds a couple more to the growing number of those trying to track him down through the darkened streets. In a choice meant to highlight Giovanni's own sense of guilt and increasing desperation, McIntyre has added a ghostly Commendatore (Liam Moran) to stalk through the shadows, a haunting presence that Giovanni alone perceives, much like Banquo's ghost in Macbeth.
In some productions it's easy to play the game of "which of these is not like the other," meaning that there is sometimes a weak link or two in the main cast; however, this time I thought all the players were strong, both in their voices and in the way they inhabited their characters. Wager played the smirking, swaggering snake while also finding the slowly crumbling bravado that falls away to madness in the end. Selig's Elvira believably portrays the vengeful ex-lover who can't quite get over her bad-boy complex. And in a role that requires both humor and empathy, Singletary gracefully pulls off both. His aria, "Madamina, il catalogo è questo", wherein he tries to convince Elvira to forget about Giovanni by reciting the lists of the cad's numerous conquests, is both wry and sympathetic.
Of course, the music is Mozart's and conductor Joseph Mechavich leading the orchestra through the splendid score is reason enough to attend a night at the opera. Playful duets, witty arias, and dance music gradually give way to the ominous specter of the Commendatore's statue accepting Giovanni's invitation to dinner. Another of McIntyre's touches was the decision to place the final chorus (traditionally the chorus of demons dragging Giovanni to hell) in the back row of the balcony where I was sitting, which perfectly suited the gathering doom and darkness of the ending. Here, Giovanni ends his own life with a gun, which is slightly more prosaic than having the pits of hell open up, but still a dramatic scene on which the final curtain can fall. Some past productions have done just that. However, Mozart wrote a final ensemble piece that presents the moral of the story and ties up the other characters' loose ends after Giovanni's death -- and that ensemble is preserved in this production. It's a bit clunky to wrench one's attention away from the sprawled body of Don Giovanni to hear an ill-timed marriage proposal from Ottavio and Leporello musing on finding his next employer. This is the only point in the opera where I thought the noir tone didn't quite hold up. When the cast sings about Giovanni meeting the deserved end of all those who do evil, there's not much "moral ambiguity" there. We of the modern era are far too used to seeing the "evildoers" not only get away with it, but also get their own reality show.
Donovan Singletary as Leporello
[Photo Credits: Patrick Pfister]