Over the last several years, the Berkshire Opera Festival has produced stimulating and musically satisfying classic and new operas. Having seen (and reviewed) an exceptionally satisfying Falstaff last August, I was very much looking forward to this season’s offering of another of opera’s major masterpieces, Don Giovanni. This year, though, director Jonathan Loy’s concept darkened the opera out of the librettist Lorenzo da Ponte’s dramma giocoso (“humorous drama”) qualities.
The first surprise comes during the overture, as the curtain rose early to show a man and woman intertwined in passionate activity while a third man writhes in circles around them. It was at first unclear quite what was happening, until the dancers functioning as mimes left the first man, who was clearly Don Giovanni (baritone André Courville). The dancers seemed to represent states of Giovanni’s mind: the woman (Katie Harding) embodied his constant search for females to assuage his unending sexual drive, and the man (Edoardo Torresin) became, to my mind, an anti-Jiminy Cricket, a bad conscience urging Giovanni on to further excess.
Leporello, Giovanni, Donna Elvira, the Commendatore, and later Don Ottavio wore black. Gradually it became clear that with virtually the entire cast was to be in black—regardless of social standing, gender, age, etc. —the opera was becoming noirish.
Still the opening scene contains one of Mozart’s stunning demonstrations of how a great opera works—and since it is set in the middle of the night, the overall blackness of the scene and the costumes functioned well. Leporello, Giovanni’s timid servant (his name means “little rabbit”), is standing watch outside a house that Giovanni has entered stealthily in the hope of seducing Donna Anna. She screams and pursues Giovanni out of the house, attempting to discover his identity. They are interrupted by her father, the Commendatore, who challenges Giovanni to a duel. At this point the extraordinary ensemble begins: three basses singing together, potentially vocal interference preventing the audience from making head or tail of the trio. But each character has entirely different music, expressing his own situation. The Commendatore is dying after Giovanni stabs him with his sword; his words and melodic line are broken as he struggles to breath and life seeps out of him. Giovanni coldly assesses the result of the duel he has just won (“Already the miserable man falls”) in a slowly lyric line that suggests he is twirling his mustache, a stage villain. And Leporello did his best to hide and escape, with a tremulous dotted rhythm that reflecting his timorousness.
That is Mozart’s art, which places him at the peak of opera composers—not just beautiful arias that show off a singer’s vocal technique (though he provides those, too) but an ongoing action in which participants remain fully themselves through changing circumstances.
Virtually every member of the cast and chorus wore black, even in festive party scenes. And much of the time, the characters remained motionless. Giovanni and Leporello were the most active in portraying the self-congratulatory master and his timid servant. The three ladies who encounter Giovanni in the course of the opera are differentiated in the style of their gowns, but they are still black. The two men who are potential spouses of the women Giovanni has pursued, though of different societal stations, similarly appeared in black.
The young country folk who are about to celebrate the pending wedding of Zerlina and Masetto, wear black, which makes the scene drab despite the liveliness of Mozart’s music. And when Giovanni invites them all to a party at his house (to give him a chance to seduce Zerlina), the black clothing and general lack of motion on stage rather dampened the high spirits of the party and the dancing. Only the Don and Leporello consistently stood out—Giovanni with a striking blue paisley dinner jacket, and Leporello outfitted in a brown outfit suggesting servitude. Zerlina wore a red frock over her black gown at the party, where the Don leads her to another room, from which her screams soon emerge, breaking up the joyous activities. (The dancer Katie Harding appears near the end of the opera with a similar red covering to start making love with Giovanni during his last dinner; she looks enough like the singer playing Zerlina (Natalia Satnaliz) to suggest directorial intent that she portray the image of Zerlina—still unconquered—in Giovanni’s imagination. In this coal mine mise en scene the Commendatore/Statue suited in white almost blinded us with a shocking departure from the prevailing gloom. Readers must have concluded by now that the look of the opera failed to capture the range of human character and personality embodied in the music.
The company assembled a very strong cast, especially vocally. Only Courville’s Giovanni and Christian Zaremba’s Leporello, moved with any vigor or comic imagination. The others generally stood all but motionless. More directorial conceit?
Courville’s firm, clear baritone and sturdy gestures (including the times that his mime-dancer Edoardo Torresin spurred him to new sinful activity) looked and sounded entirely appropriate to his title role. Zaremba’s Leporello stole the show with the widest range of action and reaction, from quivering in the corner to pretending to be his master early in the second act; he carried it through with amusing reactions. The three women whom Giovanni pursued all have attractive voices. Megan Moore, as Donna Elvira, sang her most challenging arias with aplomb and brilliance. Laure Wilde, as Donna Anna seemed not quite warmed up as she the Don dispatch her father in the opening scene, but she put over her big second act aria “Non mi dir” with warm affect. Zerlina (Natalia Santaliz) played wonderfully against Giovanni in “Lâ ci darem la mano” with soubrette ambivalence; yet her reconciliation with her fiancé Masetto radiated warm sincerity.
Donna Anna’s fiancé Don Ottavio occupies a dramatically a somewhat ungrateful role, though he gets a wonderful aria (“Dalla sua pace”) to make up for it. Joshua Blue imbued it with great lyric-tenor longing. Masetto (Brian James Myer) played the jealous boyfriend with truculent energy, happily reconciling with Zerlina by the end after her decidedly un-woke “Batti, batti” (Beat me, beat me). John Cheek projected a rich and stentorian bass as the terrifying statue.
Brian Garman conducted with excellent timing and balance, playing the (electronic) harpsichord for the recitatives. Costume designer Charles Caine worked in dark hues. Stephen Dobay’s set featured staircases leading in various directions and an amusing hidden bed that rolled out when Leporello prepared Giovanni’s fateful final dinner. Alex Jainchill designed the lighting, and Beckie Kravets took care of the hair and makeup.
Don Giovanni will end its run Friday at 7:30 pm in the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center in Great Barrington.
Steven Ledbetter is a freelance writer and lecturer on music. He got his BA from Pomona College and PhD from NYU in Musicology. He taught at Dartmouth College in the 1970s, then became program annotator at the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1979 to 1997.