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.
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.
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.”