Mozart’s opera, Don Giovanni, was heard on Sunday afternoon (January 25) at Sanders Theatre, Cambridge, in a skillful “semi-staged” performance by professional soloists with the Boston Youth Symphony Chamber Orchestras and members of the Chorus pro Musica, conducted by Federico Cortese. I’m not sure I ever want to hear/see a “staged” performance of this opera again—this one was so convincing, and intelligently presented in every way. It continues a series Cortese began in 2008 by semi-staging Cosi fan tutte, and Le nozze di Figaro in 2009, as a way to immerse the students in both the nuances of classical music, and the emotions of dramatic music. In the program notes he quotes the statement, “Art is the education of feelings,” as an operant value in his brief essay, “Why We Perform Opera at the BYSO,” where he emphasizes that this training is particularly important for teenage musicians.
Cortese’s conducting is energetic, but also delicate, using his lithe body with the right balance and bounce to generate just the sounds he wants (and we relish). The 60-member student orchestra, whose entire membership changed between acts, was responsive and disciplined, with near perfect intonation (just one tiny slip of the exposed horns). The students played on stage behind the soloists, who in turn sang and acted their roles both on stage and below it, and in the audience, sometimes from the balcony. The acting was brilliantly directed by Marc Verzatt, who also created the fully colloquial new supertitles in English that surely assisted the audience in enjoying the humor, as well as understanding the pathos of the piece. Kudos also to Holly Gettings, who has been designing lighting at Sanders Theatre since 1980—it can’t be easy. The white marble statue of James Otis (1725 – 1783) on stage right conveniently served to depict that of the Commendatore in the second act.
The well-chosen soloists were splendid, both individually, and in the many ensembles, and distinguished their roles dramatically. Don Giovanni, sung by baritone Christopher Burchett, properly commanded the stage when present, and projected his handsome voice vigorously with clear Italian diction. With Leporello, well played by bass-baritone Eric Downs, the comic nature of the role means fewer arias and more recitatives, and even the arias, such as his “Notte e giorno faticar” with which the opera begins, are choppy, but there were windows to observe what a fine voice he has when given a chance. Donna Anna (soprano Arianna Zukerman) and Don Ottavio (tenor Steven Sanders) are given the staid, expansive arias in this opera, and we were well rewarded by their beautiful, rich voices. The peasant roles of Zerlina (coloratura soprano Joanna Mongiardo) and Masetto (bass-baritone Matthew Burns) are by turns comic and serious, rushed and relaxed, and in both modes stylishly sung by fine voices. Donna Elvira (soprano Sara Jakubiak), is the only character who has a chance to display a change of heart, from deep rage to compassion. In both moods she displayed a strong, flexible voice, and fine command of her role. All of the soloists had previously sung major Mozart roles—Masetto (Burns) has portrayed both Don Giovanni and Leporello—and the glorious ensemble singing reflected this ease.
A “semi-staged” version is far more dramatically satisfying that a concert version, of course, and somehow the focus on the musical drama is even stronger than a fully staged one—in this way the impact of the opera is immediately timeless. Obviously if both the orchestra and the singers are on stage, the music, and not the scenic design is central. Crowding is a problem, especially when the chorus appears (infrequently). The soloists sing and act in modern concert dress, which is appropriate to the scenes anyway. They have a few necessary props (capes, swords, hats, etc.) that contribute to the drama, but never distract from the music.
All together this was a nourishing way to revisit an old favorite with its familiar arias, and surely an amazing musical experience for these students.