FGO opens season with an admirable “Don Giovanni”

By Lawrence Budmen

Elliot Madore as Don Giovanni restrains Donna Elvira (Elizabeth Caballero) in Florida Grand Opera’s production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni. Photo: Daniel Azoulay

Mozart’s Don Giovanni is one of the landmarks in the history of opera. The fusion of Mozart’s superb score and Lorenzo Da Ponte’s libretto about the adventures and eventual fall of the libertine Don Juan produced one of those rare, nearly perfect works of music drama. 

Florida Grand Opera’s new production attempts to put a contemporary spin on this tale and mostly succeeds, largely due to the universality of the story. Musically there was much to admire at the season opening performance on Saturday night at the Arsht Center as well as some prominent weaknesses and one serious omission from the musical text.

Advance publicity hinted that director Mo Zhou’s production was going to be a feminist reinterpretation for the #MeToo era. Actually Zhou’s fast-paced staging was largely traditional and her few changes were theatrically effective. When Don Giovanni could not defeat the Commendatore in a sword battle, he stabbed him in the back. He threatens Leporello with a knife when the servant refuses his command to aid him in his escapades. While Zhou stresses the united efforts of Don Ottavio, Donna Anna, Zerlina and Masetto to bring down the predatory protagonist, that is very much part of Da Ponte’s original concept.

The omission of Don Ottavio’s aria “Dalla sua pace” conforms to Mozart’s original 1787 score for the Prague premiere. (The tenor aria was added for a 1788 production in Vienna.) 

Yet ending the opera with Don Giovanni being dragged down to Hades while omitting the entire final scene–as FGO is doing in this staging–is more problematic. Granted, while performed at the Prague premiere, it was dropped immediately and not done again for the rest of the original run; the final scene has only come to be seen as an integral part of the opera in the 20th century.

But integral it is. In the concluding sextet, the characters’ individual futures are sorted out and, more importantly, Mozart and da Ponte drive home the story’s moral – “this is the end that befalls to evildoers.” That message is as relevant to this historical moment as in the eighteenth century. Moreover, the final ensemble is important for the opera’s musical framework and omitting it misrepresents the creators’ artistic conception.

John Pacoe’s unit set of columns, a balcony, church and town square adroitly set the Spanish venue. Ann Houls-Ward’s costumes effectively conveyed the class distinctions between the characters of nobility and peasants. Nate Wheatley’s red lighting potently sealed the horror of the Don’s fate.

The casting of the title role is pivotal in any Don Giovanni production. Elliot Madore meets the challenge with a riveting portrayal, buttressed by strong vocalism. Conniving and slightly mad, this Don craved seduction. Even when he was not singing, he seized attention, so potent was Madore’s theatricality. His sizable baritone could sound robust in the Champagne aria or mellifluous in a softly gentle “Deh vieni la finestra.” This Don was a formidable adversary, almost frightening in his refusal to repent in defiance of the abyss that awaited him. 

As Donna Elvira, Elizabeth Caballero matched Madore in intensity of expression and vocal agility. Looking every yard the Spanish noblewoman, Caballero’s richly colored voice had reserves of power at the top. Whether assaying pure legato lines or fiery coloratura, her vocal command was strong and she avoided the hysteria that many sopranos bring to the role. A velvety “Mi tradi” capped a distinctively characterized performance.

Federico De Michelis displayed a real flair for comedy as the long-suffering Leporello. The Argentinean baritone made the most of the Catalogue aria with a firmly placed baritone and scene-stealing panache.

Elizabeth de Trejo exuded dignity as Donna Anna. In her initial scene with her beloved Don Ottavio, de Trejo’s vibrato was not firmly under control but she quickly rebounded. There was rage in “Or sai chi l’onore” and her silvery high range shone splendidly in a nobly phrased “Non mi dir.” Kevin Langan (who played Leporello in FGO’s first production of Don Giovanni in 1988) intoned the Commendatore’s solemn commands in deep bass tones.

The remaining roles were taken by singers from the FGO Studio program. While young artists have been successfully cast in major roles in previous productions (La Boheme, Un Ballo in Maschera), the vocal requirements in a Mozart opera are considerably greater. These scores require balanced ensemble casting and, despite their best efforts, the three singers were simply not in the same league as their colleagues. 

As Masetto, Michael Miller fared best, displaying an attractive medium-size baritone and sure theatrical instincts. He played the role as a tough antagonist rather than the colorless rustic that Masetto often emerges as. 

Asleif Willmer exuded a charming stage presence as Zerlina. But her light soprano was a size too small for “Batti, batti” and she was an uneven match for Madore in “La ci darem la mano.”

The role of Don Ottavio is basically static. He just stands around sympathizing with Donna Anna after the Don kills her father for the remainder of the opera. Sill Mozart wrote some of his most glorious music for the role which requires an exceptional lyric tenor. 

Nicholas Huff was not up to the task. He strained in the top range during his initial scene after the Commendatore’s murder and was MIA in the mask trio (with de Trejo and Caballero), his voice virtually inaudible. Huff’s “Il mio tesoro” was solidly conveyed if more stentorian than dulcet.

From a taut Overture to the final dark chords, Christopher Allen conducted a brightly paced and idiomatic performance. His sense of Mozartean style and elegance was potent and the playing of the orchestra was outstanding and nicely balanced.

Florida Grand Opera repeats Don Giovanni  8 p.m. Tuesday and Thursday and 2 p.m. Sunday, November 24 at the Arsht Center in Miami, and 7:30 p.m. December 7 and 9 at the Broward Center in Fort Lauderdale. fgo.org; 800-741-1010

Posted in Performances

4 Responses to “FGO opens season with an admirable “Don Giovanni””

  1. Posted Nov 18, 2019 at 11:49 am by michael galex

    I attended the opening and disagree with your assessment of Ms. Wilmer (Zerlina). Her “Batti, batti” was spot on and accompanied by wonderful body movement and facial expressions.

  2. Posted Nov 27, 2019 at 2:17 pm by Peter

    One aria that Donna Elvira sang in this production, “Mi tradi,” was also not part of the opera at its first performance in Prague. It was added for the Vienna performance expressly at the request of the singer of Elvira’s part, Caterina Cavallieri, who wanted something with which to show off the qualities of her voice

  3. Posted Dec 05, 2019 at 11:31 pm by Robert

    This was a decent but not spectacular production. The orchestra was very good but I don’t think that I’ve ever seen a conductor this high in the pit. It was distracting.

    I disagree with the reviewer, i.e., “As Masetto, Michael Miller fared best, displaying an attractive medium-size baritone and sure theatrical instincts. He played the role as a tough antagonist rather than the colorless rustic that Masetto often emerges as…” I thought that he was a colorless rustic with a weak voice that I could barely hear from the seventh row.

    I thought Nicholas Huff did a wonderful “Il mio tesoro.” OK, he’s not Placido Domingo but the audience clearly appreciated this rendition.

    I’m sorry if I offend but Elliot Madore’s grinning throughout and his expressions reminded me of Jim Carrey.

  4. Posted Dec 08, 2019 at 2:44 pm by Adam D

    I was shocked and disappointed the opera ended with the death of the Don.

    I saw the last performance at the Broward center last night (12/7) and Nicolas Huff performed way better than your explanation of him on opening night. Maybe it took him a few performances to get up to snuff. Other than the missing ending, the performance last night at the Broward center was quite enjoyable.

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