Inspired cast and creative staging put a new gloss on an old villain in Palm Beach Opera’s “Don Giovanni”

By David Fleshler

Don Juan and the Commander by Charles Ricketts, 1905.

"Don Juan and the Commander" by Charles Ricketts, 1905.

Palm Beach Opera’s effective new production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni skips the usual approaches to a work encrusted with tradition.

The highly regarded young Italian director Stefano Poda designed an almost abstract setting, with screens displaying fragments of urban Europe — sections of Greek or Roman columns, buildings from 17th century Venice, gears and machinery. Priests swinging jars of incense appeared during the overture, along with a white-gowned woman dancing — almost writhing — to the music, presumably expressing what the director’s program notes tell us is his conception of the Dionysian element of the work.

This approach gave an otherworldly feeling to the production, without imposing anything that distracted from the essence of the music or libretto. It was a fresh, invigorating interpretation that enlivened the work without making it the play-thing of the director. Excellent singing and an accurate, robust performance from the orchestra under music director Bruno Aprea put the production on a musically high level, for a satisfying and thought-provoking approach to one of the world’s best-known operas.

In the baritone Gezim Myshketa, we had a Don who looked the part – darkly handsome with an uncivilized edge to his manner. He brought vigor and a firmly centered voice to Finch’han dal vino. Yet he was capable of aching tenderness – or at least the appearance of it – in La ci darem la mano and Deh, vieni alla finestra, his serenade of Donna Elvira, with a pianissimo rendition that showed how credible the manipulative Don seemed to women.

This production’s conception of Don Giovanni was heroic, a man pursuing his own ends with energy, intelligence and courage, as the dull mass of society tries to drag him down. In one scene, as Donna Anna and the others realize it was the Don who killed her father, a finger-pointing mob surrounds the Don, in a caricature of societal oppression that could have come from Ayn Rand.

Throughout the performance, the director’s originality provided an effective approach to Mozart’s strange mix of darkness and comedy.  In the party at the Don’s house, for example, traditional productions give us an elaborately decorated room with servants passing drinks and a series of women seating themselves in the Don’s lap. Not this one. The party takes place in a grim setting, with hellish orange lighting, white-faced figures in black holding candelabras and grave masked figures in black walking slowly around the room.

And in the final scene, in which the cemetery statue of the Commendatore,  Donna Anna’s father, appears at the Don’s door and calls on him to repent, Poda’s conception was a brilliant alternative to making up a bass to look like he’s made of marble or wheeling in a papier-mache statue. In this performance, the towering bass Peter Volpe entered from the back of the audience, attired in a tuxedo and moving at a stately walk, as the Don roared defiance from the back of the stage. It was a highly effective piece of theater that worked completely with the libretto and Mozart’s music.

Not every element of this complex production was clear in its meaning. At the end, a group of shirtless men paw the Don as they drag him to hell. Was this meant to be a vision of a gay hell for the flamingly heterosexual Don, condemned to be molested by men for all eternity?  And the background screens frequent moved up and down frequently, generated murmurs of annoyance in the audience, though in fairness, the fault also lies with a libretto that calls for an unusual number of rapid scene changes.

There were no weak voices on stage. As Donna Anna, Pamela Armstrong provided the strongest singing that evening, with a rich, full-toned, highly accurate soprano that could express dramatic anger, as in Fuggi, crudele or Or sai chi l’onore, without the strident tone that sometimes mars these arias.

There was some stridency in the tone of the soprano Julianna Di Giacomo as Donna Elvira, but part of her role is expressing the most anger at the Don. The versatility of her tone and style was on display, too, as she sang with melting, almost pathetic tenderness in Mi tradi quell’alma ingrata.

The singers are clad in meticulously crafted, expensive looking period costumes, black for the Don and Leporello, white for the wedding couple – and because of the spare sets, these costumes made the singers stand out brilliantly on stage.

As the ineffectual Don Ottavio, who leads the group trying to bring down Don Giovanni, the tenor Vale Rideout was stiff, upright and faintly irritating, as is appropriate for the man who represents everything Don Giovanni is not. His duet with Donna Anna, as they swear to avenge her father’s death, was an exciting and high-energy moment, helped by Aprea’s work in the pit. But his voice got a little worn as the evening went on, and he struggled a bit with the rapid demands of Il mio tesoro, an aria that needs to come off smooth as silk as the pleased-with-himself Ottavio shows off his voice.

As Zerlina, the peasant girl whom the Don steals from her husband, Amanda Squitieri  brought a voice with more richness than usually given to this light role. Although she expressed little of the coquettish side of the one woman who seems a match for the Don – showing no obvious relish for example, for toying with her hapless husband – she brought a sweetly lyric tone to Batti, batti and Vendrai, carino.

As the Don’s servant Leporello, the bass Denis Sedov portrayed a man who was more elegant valet than buffoonish sidekick. His comic sense was subtle and effective, and he was able to combine dramatic punch with vocal beauty, as in his dialogues with the statue of the Commendatore.  In the Catalog Aria, in which he breaks the news to Donna Elvira that she is not exactly the Don’s first conquest, Sedov’s phrasing and sense of timing allowed the humor to come through in the words and music without any loss of the vocal line.

As Masetto, the bass-baritone Bradley Smoak brought an appealing voice and subtle charactorization, showing anger and jealousy without going over the top.

Palm Beach Opera’s production of Don Giovanni repeats tonight at 7:30 p.m., Sunday at 2 p.m. and Monday at 2 p.m. Call 561-832-7469 or go to

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Sat Feb 27, 2010
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