This weekend the Boston University School of Music Opera Institute and School of Theater offered audiences four performances of an un-cut, fully staged production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni. In addition to being well-performed and engagingly staged, the performance I heard Friday night at the BU Theater was mostly free of interpretive tics and ideologies, allowing the story to be told on its own, troubling terms.
A tragedy with laugh lines, a comedy with attempted rapes, a condemnation to hell, a title immortalizing a seductive sociopath, Don Giovanni continues to constitute a minefield or Rorschach test for interpretation despite being one of the most popular operas of all time.
The BU production design was visually interesting, “modern” without insisting on period. The action occurred on a long, narrow, high metal platform that was approached on either side by staircases that angled their ways to the top. The structure permitted for many different vertical levels, and it was rotated around the stage, creating varying promontories and false doorways and hallways to contain the action. The lighting, by Jessica Elliott, was angled and contrasty, with reds and blues in alternating opposition, creating different milieus without suggesting specific locations. It was fascinating enough that the platform was dramatically lit during the overture, the changes in the music figuring changes in the lighting. It was very son et lumiere or tech rehearsal, depending on how it struck you.
Andrea Nice’s scenic design added only a few touches to this dominating structure when something more specific was designed: a curtain of red plastic beer cups descended to frame the wedding reception of Zerlina and Masetto. Shiny streamers covered the doorway and the upstage wall during party scenes, along with brightly colorful highlights suggesting a tired 1960s club. An odd red-and-white couch and sheer curtains indicated the Don at home. The costuming, by Leonard Choo, was a stylish but unshowy “of the minute” design: the Don in sharp suits, Leporello with a messenger bag and sweater, the women in deep colored dresses (Elvira in a reddish-purple; Anna in blue), the extras in vaguely hipster-ish down-at-heels party dress (sleeveless undershirts, lots of arm tattoos). With its stripped down character, Seville came off feeling a little second-rate, a little seedy, which helped frame some of the Don’s inexplicable success. He can be a big deal in a small city, but he’s not the conquerer of New York. This did not diminish the experience—Don’s sins and swagger are up there enough to earn the attention of the supernatural—and to explain his perpetual attraction.
The student production employed two entirely separate casts (save one part, discussed below); the performers I saw were the Friday and Sunday casts. They were competent, even moving performers in much of the music, although as might be expected from artists-in-development, challenging runs were often muddy and the higher extremes of register tended to be flat. In the absence of distracting star power, the raw materials of Mozart and da Ponte’s stage work were prominent, producing an experience that allowed the unsavoriness of the spectacle to seep into the observer. There was no attempt to seduce the audience with any of the characters; in the event-filled first act, the betrayals and attacks have shallowness to them, a kind of meanness, which made Seville seem even seedier. The Don (Isaac Bray) was exceedingly handsome, but when Zerlina (Kelly Vigil) falls for him, the attraction seems merely physical; Giovanni doesn’t have to do much besides smile and give a good line to achieve his conquest. Bray seemed just a little overmatched by the grossness of Giovanni’s drives. He seemed at his happiest when impersonating Leporello. In this case, wearing his servant’s sweater and bag he came across as an impish and impossibly stylish newsboy. Perhaps he is concealing a talent for comedy? Elvira (Audrey Hurley) is petulant and bitchy; stage director Daniel Pelzig allows her to give the Don the finger after pretending to seek something in her purse, a tasteless gesture that nonetheless seemed to fit this Elvira (and it got plenty of reaction from the house). Only in the best productions do the action and words reveal the minds of the characters; lesser stagings and translations, set the players into a kind of banal motion, which remains lively and fascinating only because of the music that animates them.
The second act of the opera is a strange beast indeed; a satyr-play interlude involving Giovanni and Leporello more or less blunts the Don’s forward action, and instead we have a series of arias that explore the emotional devastation left in the wake of the Don’s violence and opportunism. The young players of the company shone especially in this act: Hurley’s deep and plummy voice gave emotional weight to Elvira’s regrets; Anna (Kelley Hollis) was especially touching, employing a more conversational tone to sound her character’s injured reflections. Zerlina’s “Batti, batti” was somehow sincere without inducing a cringe; Masetto’s unwillingness to relent suddenly turned into vulnerability. These moments filled with emotions of love and regret were the most immediately successful.
Perhaps the surprise of the production was the impact of two secondary characters, Don Ottavio (Heejae Kim) and Masetto (Benjamin Taylor). In a Seville where the dominant man is a petty dictator and where women fall for him without resistance, the men who attempt to preserve a sense of moral order carry added weight. Ottavio’s “Dalla sua pace,” famously interpolated for reasons of tenor vanity, was an island of emotional directness. Taylor brought a finely wrought sense of aggression to Masetto, a masculine intransigence that often put Giovanni on his heels.
As much as one wants to focus on the emerging skills of the young performers, it needs to be noted that the most incisive performance was that of James Demler as the Commendatore, a “guest faculty artist” who covered the part in both casts. Given that he didn’t even have a biography in the program, I assume he was giving the spotlight to his younger colleagues, but the way the edge in his voice cut through the muddle of the first act conflict and the command he brought to the end of the second act could not be ignored.
The stage action suffered from moments of lassitude; William Lumpkin’s direction was syrupy at times, the rhythmic drive of the piece lagging (to be fair, this may have been done to accommodate the needs of the young singers). The orchestra was positively scratchy during the overture, but pulled itself together as the evening progressed. Pelzig created attractive and symmetrical stage pictures, but seemed to lose steam as the production proceeded—the staging structure did a lot of rotating in the second act to less than crisp effect. There were some doubtful choices in blocking, where the activity on stage mismatched the energy in the music. Even an aria as active as “Fin ch’ han dal vino” loses its forward momentum when the actor must put on his trousers while singing; and much of the catalog aria was spent watching Elvira page through a thick album giving shocked reactions.
The production hit its important marks where it needed to: the first act curtain was rousing, the Don’s consignment to hell was redly vivid and dramatic. I am happy to report that the final ensemble was retained, providing the necessary counterweight to keep the ending from turning the entire opera into a mere melodrama of Giovanni’s. It reminded us that there were other human beings in the play besides the intermittently charismatic Don. The ending was received with rapturous hooting and yelling—another of the benefits of a student production.