Don Giovanni: Lover on the Lam
Local Arts Reviews
Reviewed by Robi Polgar, Fri., Nov. 26, 1999
Don Giovanni: Lover on the Lam
Bass Concert Hall, November 21
Poor Don Giovanni; nothing is going right today. This man whose amorous conquests span Europe, this legendary gourmand of women of all ages, classes, and appearances, cannot find a willing consort. His early morning antics have him defending himself against the Commendatore, whose daughter, Donna Anna, Don Giovanni has unsuccessfully attempted to board. In the ensuing fight, the old man is killed, and the Don flees -- then spends the rest of his day in flight: fleeing the vengeful Donna Anna and her flaccid fiancé, Don Ottavio; fleeing the lovelorn yet equally vengeful Donna Elvira, a recent conquest; alternately wooing and fleeing the peasant girl Zerlina and her buffoonish husband-to-be Masetto (on their wedding day, no less!); and fleeing the townsfolk, stirred up to destroy this lecherous, dangerous Don.
Mozart's phenomenal opera exemplifies how you can take the art out of the pop culture, but you can't take the pop culture out of the art. This opera has it all: powerful music and swashbuckling escapes; gorgeous arias and silky, romantic duets; hilarious situations involving the hero and his comic servant, Leporello; a gripping conclusion with the cold hand of death; and a sunny moral to send the audience home content. Holding all this varied material together is Mozart's brilliant score and the growing sense of the inevitable capture and demise of Don Giovanni -- and even here, Mozart and librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte manage a few surprises to keep the story taut.
In Austin Lyric Opera's production, baritone Gordon Hawkins is superb in the title role -- a monster of a man, confident, rakish, aloof, but so tuned in to the ladies. Leaping the balcony rail to assail another lovely, Hawkins' Don is lightning quick; swapping clothes with his servant, he is equally quick-witted, conceiving a deception in an instant to save his hide. But Hawkins ensures that his Don doesn't become an object of the audience's pity, often playing him cold and cruel, ready to draw his foil and bully anyone who might challenge him -- even Leporello.
Playing Donna Anna is the fantastic Sally Wolf, whose voice easily conveys the range and depth of the vengeful woman's conflicting emotions: sorrow over her father's death, steadfastness in her vengeance, tenderness toward her fiancé when explaining why she did not immediately accept his marriage proposal. As Donna Elvira, Pamela South combines the haughty comedic flourish of the spurned rich girl with the deeper, more confusing feelings of a woman who harbors a love for the wicked Don, in spite of herself. Suzanne Ramo's Zerlina is both feisty and innocent, and a willing seductee, until she comes to her senses. Her loving song to her abashed fiancé soothes and placates beautifully.
As the fiancés, bass-baritone Scott Altman and tenor Raoul Hernandez spend much of their time following -- or chasing -- their respective sweethearts as they battle the monster/lover; these are not the pants-wearers in their future households. Altman's Masetto is oafish and coarse to the point of clownishness; it's hard sometimes to discern whether Altman is acting or play-acting, though his voice is always clear and strong. Hernandez has a sympathetic, if less than overpowering voice; physically, he is as stiff as Altman is awkward.
Kevin Langan, on the other hand, possesses a showman's bravado and charm, and his Leporello fairly steals the show. A gifted bass, Langan is quite at ease with the broad physical comedy needed for this servant/confidant role. He's equally comfortable with the jokes, wordplay, and frequent winks to the audience, as is clear when he pretends to conduct the orchestra in the pit, adding commentary on various popular themes, including a deprecating remark about a melody from Mozart's Le nozze de Figaro. Langan's interaction with Hawkins is extraordinary, and the two together keep this Don Giovanni running pell mell.
Director Joseph McClain keeps this talented ensemble in perpetual motion, sometimes to great comic or dramatic effect. Still, there are many occasions when letting the singers stand still might yield better results and prevent some unnecessary upstaging. An extra-textual opening tableau is a bold choice, augmenting the opera's grave opening with a stark visual image. Unfortunately, the picture of Don Giovanni's flagellation in Hell, musically adept though it may be, winds up rather comedic, given the odd ur-priests with their incense balls swinging out of rhythm and the halfhearted whipping by the demons from down under.
Ultimately, Austin's grandest producer of theatrical fare suffers from the same malaise that afflicts most local arts groups: the inability to stage a production that is refreshing, immediate, and satisfying from top to bottom -- as well acted as written, as technically proficient as aesthetically conceived. Too often, one leaves the theatre thinking how wonderful a production was, except for ... The brilliance of the material leaves an indelible mark, but the distracting weaknesses of the production linger in the memory and dilute the experience. With this show, the technical prowess of ALO seems to have taken a disturbing step backward. The hiss of smoke machines over Mozart's dramatic musical introduction and finale; the action-shattering blackouts to move the statue of the Commendatore on and off at the opera's climax; David Nancarrow's lighting, atmospheric and expressive upstage, but overly reliant on follow spots downstage -- all these choices look like second-best solutions, and they keep this otherwise stylish and entertaining production from being an impeccable triumph.