in: Reviews

April 27, 2009

Boston Lyric Opera’s Don Giovanni Set in 1950s Great Success


The Boston Lyric Opera Company ends its 2008-2009 season with a modern presentation of the Mozart and da Ponte classic opera, Don Giovanni. Modernity and Mozart might appear paradoxical, but under Artistic Director Esther Nelson, they have never been in such agreement. Set in 1950s Italy, this production does not hide behind grandiose and elaborate sets and costumes, but employs simplicity rather effectively, leading the audience to focus more intently on each character and to really relate with the opera’s story.

The 1950s were relayed through the dress and hair styles, props and dances of that decade. The dances were a bit cliché and seemed excessive to the otherwise artful reconstruction of the 1950s. Since there were no changes of costume – characters simply might add or subtract elements of their outfits in various scenes – the production relied on props to denote changes in setting or character. Additional modern touches included the use of a contemporary English translation of the original Italian libretto. By reinterpreting Don Giovanni through the modern perspective, these artistic choices enhanced the audience’s appreciation of the opera – they could now recognize the values and meanings of Don Giovanni as pertinent to those of today’s society.

The scenery and costume changes were not missed, especially with the innovative lighting provided by Robert Wierzel. His use of dark and light, shadows and shapes of light, effectively reflected characters’ mental states and emotions, and pictorially depicted good versus evil plans. Lighting was especially expressively employed during Donna Elvira’s “Ah taci, ingiusto core,” in which she stands in a solitary square of light, portraying loneliness and inner reflection. Other impressive uses of lights occur at the very end of the opera with the Commendatore scene – the main characters stand frozen on stage, lighted from below producing a zombie-like effect – and with the last lines of the opera, “That is what happens to those who do evil. Sinners reap what they sow,” when all the house lights are turned on, almost as if the audience is now put on the judgment stand, with no darkness to hide in, promoting them to an evaluation of their own life choices and relationships.

The consistently excellent cast was led by Christopher Schaldenbrand in the title role, with other standouts being Matthew Burns as Leporello and Kimwana Doner as Donna Elvira. Schaldenbrand’s performance was top-notch – his persuasive and aggressive acting further supported by singing and smooth talking. Schaldenbrand’s Don Giovanni embodied various emotions, ranging from sleek and sleazy, to violent and angry, to defiant and wild at the end of the opera.

Burns, a rare combination of comic timing, musical ability and stellar acting, illustrates the range of Leporello’s character through his interpretations of the famed “Catalogue” aria (“Madamina, il catalogo è questo”) and the Act II aria “Ah pietà, signori miei.” The fluid change between emotions, supported by equally persuasive variations in body language expressed in Donna Elvira’s da capo aria “Ah chi mi dice mai” and its following recitative, illustrated Doner’s superior vocal and acting skills.

The standout aria of this premiere performance was Don Ottavio’s (played by Matthew Plenk) Act II “Il mio tesoro intanto.” Plenk exhibited impressive control and mastery over his voice, especially apparent in the effective crescendos and precise pitch leaps, hitting each note with great accuracy. The cast was filled out with Susanna Phillips as Donna Anna, Ulysses Thomas as the Commendatore, Heather Johnson as Zerlina, and Joseph Valone as Masetto. Each performer embodied their character to the fullest, portraying their character in an incredibly believable light.

The outstanding orchestra, led by Anthony Barrese, provided solid musical support throughout the opera. The orchestra exhibited their excellence in the Finale of Act I, “Presto presto pria ch’ei venga,” with their crisp articulation, mastery of different textures and ability to change dynamics on a whim, supporting the energy and frenzy on stage. Another standout musical moment was Leporello’s Act II aria “Deh vieni alla finestra.” Here, through their beautiful sweeping lyric phrases, the orchestra gracefully tries to woo Donna Elvira, along with Leporello acting as Don Giovanni. The only drawback to the music was the artistic decision to include a modern piano, instead of a harpsichord or fortepiano, in the continuo section of the orchestra. The piano sounded out of place in the 18th-century world of Mozart’s music – the juxtaposition between the Classical music and the contemporary setting of this opera would have been more effective if the orchestra had maintained Mozart’s original orchestration.

This production of Don Giovanni showed the hyper-sexualized and violent nature of modern society. Sexual innuendo, both verbal and physical, and the shocking reality of rape culminated towards the end of Act I with a frightened Zerlina running back to the stage with her hands bound by rope and an aggressive Don Giovanni chasing after her.

Overall, Boston Lyric Opera’s production of Don Giovanni was a great success. The audience could easily relate to this production, especially since the majority of them were alive in the 1950s. Even though this opera was first premiered in 1787, its values, events and characters seemed meaningful, relevant and reflective of today’s society.

The Boston Lyric Opera will perform Don Giovanni until May 5. For additional details please visit

Elizabeth Perten is a doctoral student in Musicology at Brandeis University and also is pursuing a Joint MA in Women’s and Gender Studies. She graduated from Barnard College, Columbia University, with a BA in Music


  1. ??? I thought Plenk was distinctly underpowered, & Schaldenbrand’s pelvic gyrations were neither theatrically necessary nor erotic. The amplification of the Commendatore was nauseous.

    Comment by Ida Dunham — April 27, 2009 at 8:50 pm

  2. Matthew Burns, however, was spot-on!

    Comment by Ida Dunham — April 27, 2009 at 8:52 pm

  3. I liked the performance in general, but still I don’t understand the reason of “relocating@ “Don Giovanni” to the 1950-ies in Italy. It doesn’t make any sense and doesn’t add anything new to the general idea of this masterpiece.

    Comment by Eugenia — May 6, 2009 at 8:00 am

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