The Boston Conservatory’s opera studies are burgeoning this year. I reported in these pages in February on the imaginative and well-executed performances of Ravel’s two short but challenging operas, and here I am less than two months later reporting on a delightful Don Giovanni performance on March 29th,which included some cast members who also had sung in the Ravel. It must be a full-time occupation to learn such different roles so quickly and to bring them forth with such fearless assurance. But these young singers are obviously quick learners and unafraid. Thursday’s principals will appear again on Saturday; a different cast on Friday and Sunday. The student orchestra, once again under Andrew Altenbach’s able direction, has mastered the lengthy score with professional attention and skill, and the difficult horn parts (this is, after all, an opera in which cuckoldry is important) stood out with bright but never overbearing sound.
The Boston Conservatory Theater is a relatively small one, but it is of modern design, well equipped and comfortable. The stage was big enough to accommodate seven principals and a chorus of 16, but not big enough to hold the two additional string orchestras that Mozart’s score calls for (playing in different meters and tempi), so we heard them playing in the pit amid the general ballroom confusion. This would have been a likely reason also for the omission of the dinner music in Act II (Donna Elvira’s “L’ultima prova” following immediately after the tables are brought in); this was the only cut in the score that I detected.
We remember that this most famous of Mozart’s Italian operas is called a dramma giocoso, which we take to mean that it is a serious work, even a morality play, but one with plenty of buffo elements. One can hardly call it a tragedy, although one regrets that Donna Elvira decides at the end that she must enter a convent when, if Gilbert had been the librettist rather than da Ponte, she could have been paired up with the repentant Leporello. It seems right for the flighty Zerlina and the blundering Masetto to forgive each other in the final parabasis (I think that Ravel remembered this when he wrote L’heure espagnole), why should Donna Anna need a whole year to calm down before marrying her Don Ottavio? (There’s a similar year of house arrest mandated at the end of Der Freischütz, but that is a decree of punishment.) All of these roles were handled with good understanding by the singers, under Johnathon Pape’s careful and restrained stage directing. Among the singers, I was struck by the especially fine vocal work of Katy Kelly (Donna Anna) and Salvatore Atti (Don Ottavio).
There is a certain amount of slapstick required in the staging, too, as well as the usual eighteenth-century penchant for masks and disguises, and these were handled well, without excess, as one could tell from the hearty laughter in the audience. Scene changes were effected by the chorus members, swiftly and unobtrusively, with the curtain up on the partially darkened stage. I have to mention also the refinement of the set design and costuming. The sets were all simple panels or drop-down flats with Moorish outlines such as one would find in the Alcázar in Seville, and an absolute minimum of stage furniture. Don Giovanni’s outfit was tight and rakish, almost a cowboy costume, and Leporello’s was 1960’s khakis basic — both very effective. Leporello stood on stage center alone at the very end, with a shrug of perfect resignation as the curtain came down slowly; he was cheered.
Subsequent performances will take place on March 30, 31 and April 1.
Mark DeVoto, musicologist and composer, is an expert in Alban Berg, also Ravel and Debussy. A graduate of Harvard College (1961) and Princeton (PhD, 1967), he has published extensively on these composers and many music subjects, most notably, harmony. His most recent book is Schubert’s Great C Major: Biography of a Symphony (Pendragon Press). His website is here.