Palm Beach Opera serves up a striking, film noir “Don Giovanni”

By David Fleshler

Palm Beach Opera's "Don Giovanni" opening night Friday, February 22, 2019.

The gangster owner of a supper club called “Giovanni’s” serves as the anti-hero of Palm Beach Opera’s engrossing new production of one of Mozart’s greatest operas.

Don Giovanni’s brand of swinishness is so universal that the opera translates smoothly into other eras. In a production that opened Friday at the Kravis Center, stage director Kristine McIntyre’s smart, witty film noir approach updates the work to an American city of the 1950s, in a distinctly cinematic spectacle with fedoras, trench coats, handguns and long black shadows on gray city buildings.

“Real tough guy, aren’t you?” Don Giovanni snarls as he beats the hapless bridegroom Masetto, according to the words projected above the stage, in what is likely a less-than-faithful translation of the Italian. But in the most important respects, this is a production that respects and enhances the musical and dramatic essence of the opera, rather than treating a great work as the plaything of the director.

The famous Catalogue aria, in which the Don’s servant Leporello breaks the news to Donna Elvira that she was not exactly the Don’s first love, was brilliantly done. Singing in a voice that sounded a bit rough, but lusty and vigorous, the bass Joshua Bloom handed Donna Elvira sheets of paper listing the Don’s conquests by country, and when he gets to Spain, where the tally is 1,003, she drops the pages in open-mouthed shock. Through all this, as he lists the number of women per country, the orchestra gave a lustrous account of the soaring music with which Mozart set the sordid words.

The performance by the orchestra was among the strongest elements of the evening. Led by PBO’s chief conductor David Stern, the orchestra played with clarity, style and elegance in Mozart’s melodies. The complexities of the accompaniment were sharply delineated without overwhelming the singers.

The work begins with some of the most dramatic few minutes of any opera, with a rape, murder and solemn pact of revenge, and Stern drove the music forward with rhythmic force and intensity. The orchestra delivered in the spooky elements of the score and played with fearful grandeur at the critical moment when Donna Anna realized it was the Don who murdered her father.

Director McIntyre and set designer R. Keith Brumley originally created this film noir version of Don Giovanni for Kansas City Opera. The sets are striking, with grim city buildings and tenements, and a sign that spells out “Giovanni’s” in appropriately sleazy blue neon.

Vocally there were neither weak links nor standouts. As Don Giovanni, the Ukrainian baritone Andrei Bondarenko created an effective portrait of a swaggering man of the world, accustomed to charming and threatening his way through life. Elegant in black tie, a fedora tilted low over his eyes, he could be coolly intimidating as he crowded Masetto out of his own wedding party.

He met his end in his own restaurant, spending his final moments with a liquor bottle in one hand, a gun in the other, waiving it at terrified waiters. His departure from this world came in a manner better suited to the rough urban setting than would have been the usual spectacle of the supernatural.

Bondarenko’s singing was uneven, with the Don’s charming side less in evidence. “Là ci darem la mano,” his duet with Zerlina, came off as more aggressive than seductive. He sharply articulated the words of his drinking song, giving the performance a driving energy. His serenade came off as a bit dry, without the sinister warmth that would charm the women. But the set pieces aside, he was a vocally imposing presence throughout, pressing his will upon the others with his dark baritone.

As Donna Anna, soprano Caitlin Lynch gave a performance that was long on lyricism. Although her vibrato was too wide at points, she produced effortless, liquid high notes and effectively expressed her character’s anger and emotional turmoil.

Soprano Danielle Pastin did a superb job capturing the conflicting emotions of Donna Elvira, as she lurched from love to hatred for the Don, and then back to love. If her high notes showed signs of occasional loss of focus, she brought a rich tone and a fine, aristocratic fury to the role.

Tenor Bogdan Volkov brought the earnestness of Elliot Ness to the good-guy role of Don Ottavio. He gave a fine account of “Il mio tesoro,” with apparent ease in notes held for inhumanly long periods and a smooth production of the florid runs.

As Zerlina, the mezzo-soprano Danielle MacMillan’s voice may have been a bit heavy for the role of the manipulative flirt who alternately tormented and comforted her husband. But she was convincingly scheming, seductive and ingenuous, bringing a creamy legato to the aria “Batti, batti, o bel Masetto.”

Neil Nelson gave a subtle performance as Zerlina’s husband Masetto, drawing out the character’s comedy and hapless humanity without veering into exaggeration.

As the Commendatore, the Russian bass Mikhail Kolelishvili contributed an intimidating stage presence and a wayward voice. The notes often became unfocused especially in the upper register, although  he produced his threats to the Don with a glossy tone.

Performances will continue 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. For Saturday’s performance Don Giovanni will be sung by Edward Nelson, Donna Anna by Hailey Clark, Donna Elvira by Felicia Moore, Don Ottavio by David Margulis and Leporello by Zachary Nelson.

Posted in Performances

3 Responses to “Palm Beach Opera serves up a striking, film noir “Don Giovanni””

  1. Posted Feb 23, 2019 at 2:35 pm by gail

    much prefer the original version, which is light and more fun. Missed the colorful settings and costumes.

  2. Posted Feb 23, 2019 at 5:40 pm by Peter Hoffman

    Danielle MacMillan has star quality. She has the capability to be one of the great one.

  3. Posted Feb 23, 2019 at 7:10 pm by Obi

    it was bland and felt painfully long. The plain set took away from this beautiful opera. It was the only opera I have ever attended during which I had to fight myself not to get up and leave. Utterly disappointing.

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Sat Feb 23, 2019
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