in: Reviews

March 13, 2010

NEC’s Promising Singers in Challenging Roles

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Wolfgang Amadè Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni is a piece of immense proportions, not undertaken lightly by any opera company. The opera’s influence in Western culture is profound and extensive. The opera itself  is difficult to classify. The librettist, Lorenzo Da Ponte, considered it a dramma giocoso, denoting a blend of serious and comic elements; Mozart, however, entered it into his catalogue as an opera buffa (comic opera). It has been given staunchly traditional productions as well as such radical ones as Peter Sellars’ (set in the South Bronx with Don Giovanni and Donna Anna shooting up heroin while singing their respective arias). Kierkegaard refers to it as “a work . . . of uninterrupted perfection.” The New England Conservatory Opera  is mounting a fully staged production of Don Giovanni at the Cutler Majestic Theatre this weekend, and though the results are mixed, one must salute their courage in tackling Mozart’s grandest and most demanding opera.

DongWon Kim as Don Giovanni, Angela Theis as Zerlina   (Andrew Brilliant photo)

DongWon Kim as Don Giovanni, Angela Theis as Zerlina (Andrew Brilliant photo)

In the title role, DongWon Kim sang well and understood the character, yet one missed the swagger and innate magnetism of the Don, the very qualities which drive the plot. Surely, he is a man of extraordinary charisma if Donna Elvira, after all Giovanni’s outrages she has endured and witnessed, can begin to soften towards him late in the opera. Vocally, though, Mr. Kim was only out of his depth in the Don’s final scene, where he pushed his voice to the point of strain.

As Leporello, John Burton, a guest artist, convincingly portrayed his near-constant ambivalence and guilt about being Giovanni’s accomplice. In a rare respite from these feelings, the famous catalogue aria, Mr. Burton demonstrated admirable restraint, delivering his comic patter in a detached and offhanded manner. He let the orchestra supply the snickers and belly laughs, which they did heartily.

In the role of Donna Anna, Morgan Strickland makes a strong impression, displaying unusual physical and vocal nobility for someone of her tender years. Her transitions from intense grief to vengefulness to tender love came off naturally. Her voice remains beautiful throughout her different emotional states and has ample power when it is required. Only in Donna Anna’s great — and extremely challenging – aria, “Non mi dir,” was she slightly overmatched, but it seems likely Ms. Strickland will be a sought-after Donna Anna in a few years.

Mxolisi Duda, as her fiancé Don Ottavio, has a light, sweet tenor, perhaps a bit too light in ensembles. He does what he can with a dramatically near-thankless role: his character is full of good intentions but basically ineffectual. His one moment to shine comes in another highly demanding aria, “Il mio tesoro.” If Mr. Duda didn’t emerge entirely unscathed, most of it was sung expressively and tenderly. For although the aria seems to be about seeking bloody vengeance on behalf of Donna Anna, at its core it is an avowal of love for her.

Jennifer Hoffman as Elvira    (Andrew Brillian photo)

Jennifer Hoffman as Elvira (Andrew Brilliant photo)

As Donna Elvira, Jennifer Hoffmann gave a stirring account of “Ah fuggi il traditor,” featuring steely determination and vocals. Unfortunately, in “Mi tradì quell’ alma ingrata,” yet another stiff test of a singer, her top notes were not ideally steady and her runs sometimes ragged. However, Ms. Hoffmann was quite capable of conveying Elvira’s painful ambivalence toward the Don when not confronted with an aria’s technical demands.

Anthony Leathem, as Il Commendatore, sang well but simply didn’t have either the vocal heft or authority the role requires. An effort to age him visually at least might have helped: in his first appearance he looked more like Donna Anna’s brother than her father. At the dénouement, when he was now literally monumental in form, his voice was all too often covered by the orchestra playing merely mezzo forte.

Angela Theis was well suited to the role of Zerlina. Her fetching voice and fluid coloratura sparkled in the final section of “Batti, batti” and provided soothing balm in “Vedrai carino.” Her saucy, fun-loving characterization led quite naturally to Masetto’s jealousy, but it was balanced by her touching devotion to him in the end.

In the role of Masetto, Timothy Whipple reveled in his comic character. “Ho capito” featured sarcasm exuding from every pore. In the lead-in to “Vedrai,” however, one could see his near-pathological jealousy melt away while he yet remained comic, indicating his various wounds for Zerlina to heal with kisses.

The orchestra played, if not flawlessly, with nuance and discipline under the expert guidance of John Greer, who also provided delicious and evocative continuo playing. The overture was especially praiseworthy, the orchestra underlining the stark contrast of dark portent to playful, effervescent charm and playing with élan and sharp ensemble.

It should be the goal of such productions to make an audience forget they are seeing a student performance. Unfortunately, this was seldom achieved here. Instances of singers rushing ahead of the orchestra, both in arias and ensembles, were, regrettably, not uncommon. Depicting Donna Elvira as pregnant by Don Giovanni seemed an unnecessarily obvious and blatant ploy. The dénouement was particularly disappointing with both Giovanni and Commendatore pushed beyond their vocal capacities, the amplified unseen chorus feeling artificial, and the multi-colored flashing spotlights uneasily evocative of a discotheque. The transition from Giovanni’s descent to hell into the concluding moral-providing sextet was not ideally staged either; having the singers in a single line at the front of the stage led part of the audience to conclude that the opera was over and the cast were about to take their collective bows. Donna Anna’s beginning phrase was inaudible through the applause.

Such promising young singers as these will inevitably give frequent pleasure, but one wonders if it is prudent to cast some of them in roles to which they are not — at least at present — vocally suited. To take but one example, basses in their early 20s who are truly capable of not only projecting the dramatic authority but also fulfilling the stentorian vocal demands of the Commendatore role, are, in Rachmaninoff’s wonderful phrase from another context, “as rare as asparagus at Christmas.”

Geoffrey Wieting holds Bachelor’s degrees in organ and Latin from Oberlin College and a Master’s degree in collaborative piano from New England Conservatory. Currently, he sings in the choir of Trinity Church and accompanies the Boston Choral Ensemble under Miguel Felipe

8 Comments

  1. We thoroughly enjoyed the Sunday matinee production of Don Giovanni, which has the same cast as opening night. We attend professional opera productions frequently in Boston & NYC, and this student production is particularly well done and delightful. I agree that some of the principal singers do not have voices mature enough for such a large venue plus the full orchestra, but nevertheless, their effort was much appreciated. My only disappointment was the use of mics and loudspeakers for the chorus in the Commendatore scene. I would think that if the chorus sang from the wings that would have been adequate? The staging for the Commendatore scene was also a bit awkward with him being half-way up the set and Don G on the ground level.

    Comment by YuenK — March 14, 2010 at 7:11 pm

  2. Letter to the editor:

    In this production, Donna Elvira’s aria “Mi tradi quell’alma ingrata” was not included. Seems an unfair (and questionable) critique of the performance, considering the work in question never appeared in the show.

    Comment by Lavana — March 15, 2010 at 2:09 am

  3. First of all, I would like to commend the reviewer for devoting whole paragraphs to each singer. Student singers struggle to get their names in reviews, and I’m sure they appreciated this very much.

    This review is spot-on. The students did an admirable job. They have great talent and promise. Unfortunately, they were being paired with poor directing and apparent lack of musical polish that should have (and likely could have) been dealt with in final musical rehearsals. Don Giovanni seems an inappropriate choice; given NEC’s apparent PR surrounding Mr. Kim, one wonder’s if this opera was chosen for him alone without thought to the rest of the student body, who seemed too young (or occasionally of the wrong fach altogether) to pleasingly tackle this repertoire. The staging was terrible; it appears to me that the director placed people on stage and said, “Now, act!” There was either complete stasis or aimless wandering, with gratuitous and unconvincing sexuality that left the audience feeling awkward and a bit bored. You also know it’s a bad sign when you have an anticlimax for a dénouement. Giovanni’s demise felt entirely contrived.

    I was disappointed, and felt very sorry for the students. I think they were deprived of a positive educational and artistic experience. I expect more from one of the top conservatories in the nation.

    Comment by MarcP — March 15, 2010 at 10:13 am

  4. In response to Lavana’s comment, I regret the error. I stopped writing down notes early in the first act because the theater was almost completely dark and I couldn’t see what I was writing. After the performance I reconstructed it to the best of my recollection using a full score which of course had Mozart’s later-added arias, including Mi tradi. I believe I probably had in mind either the first act quartet, No ti fidar, or the second part of the Act I finale, Bisogna aver coraggio, both of which also confront Donna Elvira with very demanding runs and passagework. I apologize to Ms. Hoffmann for my oversight.

    Comment by Geoffrey Wieting — March 15, 2010 at 10:47 am

  5. These were students who did a superb job, some with great voices and acting skills, some with mediocre voices and acting skills. Consider the ages and experience levels. Friday night was superior to many BLO productions we’ve seen.

    Comment by Bruce — March 15, 2010 at 11:03 am

  6. I attended all three performances of Don Giovanni and thought that the students, by and large, did a fantastic job. The audiences were engaged at each performance and the comments heard afterward were glowing. I agree with the comment of YuenK regarding the awkward staging of the final Commendatore scene.

    Not to pile on, Mr. Wieting, but your negative comments about Ms. Hoffmann’s performance lack credibility. I found her performances to be quite strong, both in her acting ability and vocal command. Your explanation of your error in response to Lavana’s clarification comment adds insult to injury because the fact is you simply don’t remember with any degree of specificity how Ms. Hoffmann performed vocally. Next time your are faced with situation, stick with the facts and don’t invent a story, especially a negative one.

    Comment by Steven Bachus — March 15, 2010 at 4:41 pm

  7. To Mr. Bachus: How different listeners react to the same performance will always be to some degree subjective. I studied collaborative piano at NEC some years back and worked with many opera singers there and later at Boston University. I greatly enjoy working with singers, I have no interest in making undue criticism of them, and I would certainly never “invent” anything. I had nothing purely negative to say of any of these singers; my strongest criticism was directed at those who cast young singers in roles inappropriate for their vocal fach or level of experience.

    Comment by Geoffrey Wieting — March 16, 2010 at 2:59 pm

  8. I enjoyed Saturday night’s performance. I thought the staging of the very end worked brilliantly IMHO. As the audience applauded, the principals lined the stage, as our reviewer points out. The fact that singers then had to interrupt the applause to sing the finale was delightful. Sure we lost a few notes, but we gained spontaneity and it set up the audience — mostly new to the opera — for a thrilling close. Otherwise the singers have to come on stage….the audience has to get the point that there still more singing to come….the audience has to quiet…and then the orchestra and singers have to re-launch their stalled finale. That only works with an audience that knows what’s coming. This, by contrast, was show-biz and appropriate for the audience.

    On the other hand, I’d complain that set construction was allowed to destroy the quiet end of the maskers’ trio. A more experienced director would have kept them on stage until its close so that our applause would cover the scene change better.

    As for the comment about “gratuitous and unconvincing sexuality” — that’s not what I saw.

    Comment by Bill — March 16, 2010 at 4:18 pm

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