Florida Grand Opera’s terrific cast delivers the Mozartian goods with an imaginative Franco-era “Don Giovanni”

By David Fleshler


Georgia Jarman as Donna Elvira confronts David Pittsinger in the title role of Florida Grand Opera's "Don Giovanni." Photo: Gaston de Cardenas

In its terrific, imaginative new production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Florida Grand Opera shifts the Spanish setting 300 years forward to the late 1940s.

It is some measure of Spain’s 20th-century misfortunes that the Franco era turns out to be a credible period for the Don’s atrocities. The famous rake appears decked out like a field marshal, with epaulets and rows of medals, clearly an officer whose high rank — like the Don’s status as an aristocrat in the original 17th century setting — allows him to make his way through the world, raping a woman and murdering her father, stealing the bride from a wedding, and bedding 1,003 women in Spain alone.

The cast for Don Giovanni, which opened Saturday night at the Arsht Center in Miami, was among the most vocally consistent and excellent fielded by FGO in recent years, with several standouts in a work that has seven significant roles.

Cast, orchestra and director delivered in all the big moments. The early scene in which Donna Anna and Don Ottavio swear to avenge her father’s murder had a breathless, edgy momentum. And the scene in which the ghostly statue of the Commendatore arrives to force the Don to confront his crimes unfolded with blistering drama and heroic vocals.

John Pascoe, the director, set and costume designer, created a setting with lots of 20th century touches — handguns, flashlights, buildings made of bolted metal, a flash-bulb-equipped camera that Leporello whips out at the wedding. In place of the stately 17th century dances of the original, there was a sort of soft-shoe flamenco.

These were mostly unobtrusive touches that added a piquant sense of variety without violating the integrity of the opera. In one scene the update was particularly effective, as the Don, reclining outdoors, murmured “Poverina” to Donna Elvira’s plight as he paged through a newspaper, nicely capturing his moral detachment. But some of the swordplay looked pretty anachronistic in a place where most people seem to be packing a handgun. And there was some sexual crudeness in the staging that inspired surprised murmurs in the opening-night audience.

The bass-baritone David Pittsinger made an intimidating Don Giovanni, physically impressive and deploying a voice that radiated power even when he was singing softly. Paired with the lush voice of Brittany Ann Reneé Robinson as Zerlina in Là ci darem la mano, he displayed vocal beauty that had a muscular edge, preventing his voice from ever descending into empty prettiness. This was particularly apparent in the mandolin-accompanied serenade Deh vieni alla finestra, where Pittsinger’s husky voice effectively undermined the Don’s would-be sweetness.

The two soprano noblewomen, Donna Anna and Donna Elvira, were particularly well paired. As Donna Anna, Jacquelyn Wagner communicated a sweetness and purity, with a voice of great richness and precision, expressing aristocratic anger in Or sai chi l’onore, when she realized Don Giovanni had killed her father. As Donna Elvira, Georgia Jarman took a more worldly tone, no less aristocratic but more knowing, as her feelings for Don Giovanni veer between hatred and desire. She delivered some of the most impressive singing of the evening, in Ah, chi mi dice mai at the beginning and her later work as she joins the posse dedicated to hunting him down.

Also impressive was Morris Robinson, whose hulking stage presence and formidable bass voice made for a powerful Commendatore.

The orchestra, conducted by Andrew Bisantz, did a solid job with Mozart’s difficult, exposed music. Bisantz kept a tight rein on volume, preventing the orchestra from ever covering up the singers. Although the ensemble sounded subdued in the overture, it effectively tackled Mozart’s complex accompaniments, giving buoyant support in Leporello’s Catalogue aria and playing with dramatic fire as Donna Ana realizes it was Don Giovanni who murdered her father.

The bass-baritone Tom Corbeil portrayed Leporello as a young, menacing military aide of the high-ranking Don. Vocally he did a fine job, delivering the Catalogue aria, in which he breaks the news to Donna Elvira that there had been one or two others before her, in a vigorous style that never let the comedy overpower the vocals.

As Don Ottavio, the straight-arrow who makes his fiancé’s flesh crawl by promising to be both her husband and father, Andrew Bidlack brought a smooth tenor voice and an appropriately irritating earnestness. Although he missed a few notes in the final scenes of a long night on stage, his Il mio tesoro came off with impressively long lines, as he spun out Mozart’s elaborate vocal ornamentation.

As the peasant bride Zerlina, the only woman who appears able to match wits with the Don, Brittany Ann Reneé Robinson was a standout throughout, especially her Batti, batti o bel Masetto, highlighted by her long-held high notes. As Masetto, Jonathan G. Michie brought out the humor of this hapless peasant bridegroom without descending into low comedy.

The fight over supertitles ended a long time ago, and they obviously have their merits in expanding the audience for opera. But they can be particularly obtrusive in operas with comic elements, such as Don Giovanni. The opera’s creaky 18th-century jokes inspired a stream of titters and chuckles that often interfered with the music and showed that, by keeping their eyes glued on the supertitles, a lot of people were more in touch with the work of librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte than with the music of Mozart.

Florida Grand Opera’s Don Giovanni continues April 22 through May 8 at the Arsht Center in Miami and May 12 and 14 at the Broward Center in Fort Lauderdale. www.fgo.org; 800-741-1010.

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One Response to “Florida Grand Opera’s terrific cast delivers the Mozartian goods with an imaginative Franco-era “Don Giovanni””

  1. Posted Apr 18, 2011 at 8:20 am by Randy Gage

    You did a great job capturing the essence of what FGO did in this production. Definitely one of their best ever. I hope everyone jumps at the chance to experience this amazing show.

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Sun Apr 17, 2011
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