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Miami Summer Music Festival closes on a high note with cleverly staged, gloriously sung “Don Giovanni”

Sat Aug 01, 2015 at 1:16 pm

By Dave Rosenbaum

Betsy Diaz as Donna Anna and Todd Barnhill as Don Ottavio in Mozart's "Don Giovanni" at the Miami Summer Music Festival. Photo: Synthia Steiman

Betsy Diaz as Donna Anna and Todd Barnhill as Don Ottavio in Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” at the Miami Summer Music Festival. Photo: Synthia Steiman

In Mozart’s Don Giovanni, the title character is a womanizer, rapist, and murderer who has slept with over 2,000 women. His abused servant wants nothing more than to be like him. And the rest of the cast spends most of the opera trying to kill him. In the end, Giovanni goes to hell.

Funny stuff, no?

Well, actually, yes, it was, in Miami Summer Music Festival’s charming, richly sung production Friday night at Barry University’s Broad Performing Arts Center. Embracing the campy aspects of Mozart’s jocular drama, and featuring a star turn by Miami soprano Betsy Diaz, director Jeffrey Buchman’s Giovanni is thoughtful, carefully crafted, and always entertaining.

The action is updated to present-day Monte Carlo. Giovanni is a casino boss. And the whole thing works, showgirls and all.

Too often, opera productions built around a directorial concept fail because the director forges on without any regard for the libretto. This modern-dress production is effective because it’s not at odds with what’s written. Buchman–who has directed several acclaimed FGO productions, including Andy Vores’ No Exitactually enhances Lorenzo Da Ponte’s often ludicrous libretto by playing some of the more ridiculous scenes for what they are, so the audience willingly plays along. Why is Donna Elvira bouncing in and out of scenes for no apparent reason? Because she’s wacky.

Giovanni sings “Fin ch’han dal vino” while naked and taking a shower in a health club. Leporello sings the catalog aria to Elvira while reading his master’s black book from an iPhone. Meanwhile, playing cards with pictures of Giovanni’s conquests, including Elvira, flash in the background. Giovanni dances with showgirls. Well, he would, wouldn’t he? The entire company line-dances to Mozart in the party scene near the end of Act 1. Line-dancing to Mozart? What a concept! But it’s perfectly choreographed by Rosa Mercedes, note-for-note.

The action is played in front of projected photos of Monte Carlo’s casino, shoreline and cruise port. Buchman stages the overture, a modern directorial conceit that has become cliché, but he doesn’t do it simply to make his presence known.  As the orchestra plays, we see Giovanni blindfolding and raping Donna Anna, something that’s not called for in the original libretto. Why do we have to see this? We’ll know soon enough that Giovanni does bad things.

But Buchman knows that we live in an age in which video of an event has greater impact than the spoken telling of one, and his decision pays off nearly three hours later when the Commendatore dispatches Giovanni to hell. Until this point, Giovanni has been such an engaging, fun-loving character that we might not want to see him go if the violent rape scene wasn’t still fresh in our minds.

Of course, all of this would just be window dressing if MSMF didn’t have a cast that was up to the vocal challenges of Mozart’s opera.

So commanding was Diaz’s performance that the opera could have been retitled Donna Anna. Diaz, a former Florida Grand Opera young artist, has a huge dramatic soprano that roars over the orchestra but can float like a feather, too. Diaz’s voice shows occasional hollow spots on its way to the top, but the prospects of her 27-year-old instrument maturing should have Wagnerians eager with anticipation. She has dramatic chops, too, and harrowingly depicted her character’s angst.

As Giovanni Clayton Mathews lacks the menacing top-to-bottom lyric baritone expected from Giovanni, but his voice is deep and forceful in the upper register and, at times, sweetly seductive, too. Jacob Kato was a pleasant but underpowered Leporello whose comic acting carried him through the showpiece arias.

The sopranos were uniformly impressive and well-cast. As Donna Elvira, Allison Lonstein has a flexible voice that’s capable of slicing through the orchestra with indignation or caressing the melody in her sporadic expressions of affection for Giovanni. Rebecca Henriques was a light and sweet Zerlina with enough of an edge to remind you that she’s really not so innocent.

As Don Ottavio, Todd Barnhill displayed such a rich, appealing tenor that it’s a wonder the women didn’t run off with him instead of Giovanni. Roberto Lopez-Trigo as Masetto hardly sounded like the cuckold Zerlina makes of him, offering a full, masculine bass. Amplified and sung offstage, Osvaldo Medina’s Commendatore was appropriately deep and foreboding.

Michael Rossi led the MSMF orchestra in a superb, well-paced reading that was sensitive to the singers’ voices. The playing by the student orchestra was virtually flawless and conveyed both the light playfulness of Mozart’s melodies and the ominous nature of the darker-hued passages.

Dark, however, is not the word to describe this Giovanni. Even the anti-climactic final chorus, in which the cast reminds us that rape and murder are bad, is softened by a directorial turn. But why give it away? See it for yourself.

The Miami Summer Music Festival repeats Don Giovanni  2 p.m. Sunday at Barry University’s Broad Performing Arts Center in Miami Shores.

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August 2

Miami Summer Music Festival
MSMF Opera Institute
Mozart: Don Giovanni
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