IN: Reviews

Boston Baroque Punishes the Rake

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When Martin Pearlman led Boston Baroque (then Banchetto Musicale) in what he billed as the first modern-era, period-instrument performance at Jordan Hall of Don Giovanni, Richard Dyer told his 1986 Globe readers how privileged he felt to hear “…early instruments well played.” And he singled out John Gibbons’s “marvelously flexible fortepiano accompaniments.”* We remember that concert performance well, and though the scorebound singers permitted themselves very limited interaction, James Maddalena’s swagger, menace, and charm as the Don came through, as did the mellifluously comic and grandly toned Matthew Lau as the scene-stealing Leporello.

Boston Baroque’s change of venue to the Huntington Theater robbed last night’s BB Don Giovanni of the resonant acoustical support that the players and singers had previously enjoyed in Jordan Hall; in partial compensation, the company did some staging, though everything aside from lighting could have been done at Jordan Hall.

Stage director Chuck Hudson placed the action in contemporary Boston as defined by full-stage-width backdrop projections of such identifiable sites as the Fan Pier, the Old Granary Burial Ground, Old South Meeting House, modern office towers and a yacht, La Liberta. Often the projections included billboards of Sidney Outlaw as a DG[G?] branded celebrity, as well as occasional closeups of the other players. The low-resolution images occasionally included motion; at the end, a generic sunset irised to black as in a silent movie.

While the directorial conceit did not require wholesale rethinking of Da Ponte’s immortal drama, it did mostly obliterate the class consciousness that informs the original and replace it with celebrity envy. The Don’s massive gold chains and Trumpian gold hightops induced the other characters, including the chorus, to play relentless paparazzi with cell phones. In higher-budgeted performances, the choristers impersonate peasants, servants, young ladies, musicians, demons; herein they remained clothed in black and showed little change of character or manner. The staging provided a rear platform which severely disadvantaged voices and a larger performing area in front of the adequately sized orchestra. Two small, three-step platforms served as statue plinths, dinner trays, exercise platforms.

Daniel James Cole dressed the somewhat strangely assorted cast (Donna Anna was two heads taller than Don Octavio) in a manner we assume was meant to disclose class distinctions.  But isn’t the Don of the same class as the aristocrats? Why did Cole wrap them in conventional contemporary-but-weird dress while he made the Don, look so shabby and crass? And did Donna Elvira have to look like a purple mockery of Arsenic and Old Lace replete with a fascinator hat? What about the annoying business with her glasses? Only Zerlina’s unaffected white dress provided anything approaching elegance. If Cole intended these gathered outfits to be plausible (instead of camp) at a Boston dinner party or picnic, he left me unconvinced.

The uncredited color-morphing lighting supported the mood well, but the follow spots frequently missed their targets, leaving the faces of the principals in shadow. One had the feeling that the show will look better in the video delivered by the high-level videographers.

In the overture, the strings sounded dainty, and contributions of the winds and brass seemed to rise to the flys rather than project into the dry house. Pearlman allowed the music to anticipate the story, but without much swagger or menace. Vagaries of ensemble accuracy evinced opening-night jitters. We heard some piquant wind-band divertimenti, and I happily call out Cullen O’Neil’s big solo cello riff, but the night belonged to the singers.

In the opening scene, Patrick Carfizzi introduced himself as a Leporello with mobile face, excellent comic tricks and timing, and a focused and powerful bass baritone instrument he has deployed over 400 times at the Met. Donna Anna in the person of a powerful, if a bit hollow (was she indisposed or pushed by out-of-control tempi?) Susanna Phillips, made her escape from DG’s unwanted in advances in a cheap Hollywoody satin robe. Outlaw’s elegantly phrased Don projected a polished charm and seductiveness throughout the night, but he did not embody the bare-chested, menacing barihunkery we have come to expect in the role. Kevin Deas delivered the Commendatore’s pride and later his terrifying revenge with irresistible rolling waves of sumptuous bass tone. And his regal top also cut it!

But why vitiate the drama of the duel with banal blocking? So the Commendatore appears, Glock in hand to avenge the honor of his daughter, only to surrender the gun the Don rather agreeably. The Don obliges by poking the Commendatore in the chest with the firearm—without firing a shot. This looked ludicrous. OK, we did not expect brandishing of swords, but how about some kind of a fight? Stage guns should fire if they are going to kill someone. Maybe knives would have worked better, especially with the Don in gangsta rap deshabille.

Nicholas Phan gave elegant voice to the role of Don Ottavio, though he seemed to employ a mannerism of cutting short his legato; if he paid court more to the audience than to his towering intended, Donna Anna, we register no complaints.  He is a favorite here in Boston, and he projects his tones with a Lieder singer’s artistry.

Costuming and blocking baggage dragged down Julie Boulianne’s Donna Elvira into unfortunate mockery, making her struggle to put across her big moments. A blustery David McFerrrin acted with authority as the hapless, and bruised Masetto. Maya Kherani’s radiant Zerlina healed him and melted us. Her pinpoint-focused soubrette tones coupled to acting abilities traced her character’s development from a silly love object to a great emotional healer; she won the night. She reminded us of the great Kathleen Battle many years ago in Salzburg.

The last third of the show seemed to dispense with directorial conceits and allowed the drama to advance unimpeded, though some inappropriate laughter continued to annoy us. The non-updated masked ball appeared like an interlude from the 19th century. If the fatal feast looked to have been catered by Shakers (aside from the cigarette-girl mannequins), Deas’s statue turn did terrify as intended, but where were the blood-curdling screams?

The closing sextet…did we really need it?

Repeats tonight and Sunday at the Huntington Theater. After recent renovations, egress and comfort seem much improved there and the architecture unchanged.

Lee Eiseman is the publisher of the Intelligencer

*On the same Globe page Dyer praised a BU Opera production of Mozart’s Figaro at the Huntington…with a word count substantially longer than his Banchetto account.

Hilary Scott is credited with the images below.

3 Comments »

3 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. For anyone who wants to see this production, it may be live-streamed HERE:
    https://baroque.boston/livestream-tickets

    This is music from the Prague premiere only: the director clarifies: “The reason that most productions today combine music from two different [Prague and Vienna] versions of the opera is obvious: it is all great music. However, doing so can create dramatic problems. It has often been remarked that the second act of Don Giovanni does not have the same dramatic flow as the first. The problem stems in part from the way the libretto strings together a series of episodes, but it is compounded by adding extra arias to the opera.

    When Mozart and Da Ponte found themselves with too much music in their Vienna production (although it was still less than we normally hear today), they tried to move the drama along by making various cuts. We cannot know for certain which version they preferred, but we do know that they never intended all the music written for both versions of this opera to be heard in the same performance.

    Adhering to either the original Prague version or the later Vienna revision is not so much a matter of “omitting” music but rather of not adding it. While doing so can improve the pace of the drama, it may mean not hearing certain well-known arias. That is a choice that each production must make. Boston Baroque’s performances have followed the original Prague version.”

    You can read the rest of Martin Pearlman’s program notes HERE:
    https://baroque.boston/mozart-don-giovanni

    Comment by Laura Stanfield Prichard — April 26, 2024 at 6:06 pm

  2. Yes, the closing sextet is needed- it tells us evil gets its deserts and life for the regular folks goes on… were it only true!

    Comment by Donald Irving — April 30, 2024 at 7:37 pm

  3. The magnificent voices were in sharp contrast to the dumpster-diving costumes, boring cell-phone-toting chorus, and vertically mismatched Dona Anna and Don Ottavio. The acoustic and diction were excellent way up in nose-bleed territory.

    Comment by Martha Birnbaum — May 3, 2024 at 1:44 pm

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