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OPERA REVIEW: The Berkshire Opera Festival’s thoroughly modern ‘Don Giovanni’

Mozart’s opera was always modern. That’s one secret to its greatness. "Don Giovanni" has consistently offered every era a reflection of its own fraught time.

Mozart’s opera was always modern. That’s one secret to its greatness. A story of class and sex conflict based on a libretto by libertine adventurer Lorenzo da Ponte, “Don Giovanni” has consistently offered every era a reflection of its own fraught time. The opera changed a lot even after its premiere in Prague, when composer and librettist produced a second (“Vienna”) version.  In mounting their current modern dress production, Berkshire Opera Festival’s production director Jonathan Loy and Artistic Director Brian Garman step into a long tradition of revision. Their knowledgeable, engaging performance is a satisfying addition to the canon and another welcome contribution to the musical scene in the Berkshires summer.

Admittedly, the original versions left a lot of room for future play.  When the curtain rises, for example, the events that drive the plot have already been happening behind the scenes. Don Giovanni, the sexual conqueror (here, bass baritone Andre Courville energetic and warmly voiced throughout) is in the bedroom of high-born and engaged lady Donna Anna (a somewhat unsatisfying soprano Laura Wilde), while his servant Leporello bemoans his conduct.

John Cheek as Commendatore, dancer Edoardo Torresin, and Andre Courville as Don Giovanni. Photo by Matt Madison-Clark.

The production’s device of a dancer (Edoardo Torresin) as a wordless double for the Don first appears during the overture, engaged in an overtly sexual act with dancer Katie Harding briefly revealed at the end of the number, supine and unconscious. Are we supposed to assume he’s acting the role of the Don, whom we have not yet seen, but who we soon learn was in Donna Anna’s bedroom as the overture played? Centuries of commentators have speculated on whether Don Giovanni was a stranger raping the innocent fiancée or whether Anna actually welcomed his advances as an alternative to her boring (and hideously costumed) fiancé Don Ottavio (tenor Joshua Blue, well sung, but stiff). Using the opening in the plot that the timing and the overture provide, the silent dancers set us up to tilt toward Donna Anna’s version of events unseen.

Like this clever use of the overture, the dancing double offers the audience a commentary throughout the opera to help judge the abusive aristocrat, seducer, assailant, yet courageous and defiant freedom lover Don Giovanni.  Normally, the role of critic falls to Giovanni’s servant Leporello, irresistibly sung and acted here by bass Christian Zaremba. The opera opens with Leporello complaining about the Don’s dangerous ways and ends with his vow to seek a better master. The silent dancer, usually acting like the Don’s unhinged id, adds a new insight into the story, as Don Giovanni proceeds to run from the vengeful Anna and to chase every woman who crosses his path. Torresin is particularly effective as, from time to time, he takes on a snake-like identity, invoking primal echoes of temptation and doom.

When Anna appears chasing the masked stranger and screaming for help, and her father the Commendatore (bass baritone John Cheek, in a bit of luxury casting) appears, and Don Giovanni kills him. In the Berkshire Opera Festival production, Don Giovanni shoots Anna’s father—a laudable recognition that actors in modern dress should not suddenly resort to swordplay once gunpowder has been invented.

We spend much of the rest of the evening hunting the killer down. Don Giovanni, Leporello, and the dancing double chase his former lover Elvira (gorgeously sung by show-stealing mezzo Megan Moore). They encounter peasant girl, Zerlina (a little undersung but tuneful Natalia Santaliz), and offer her and her unhappy groom Masetto (baritone Bryan James Myer) a party, which sets up Don Giovanni for the incomparable champagne aria, but ultimately results in his being cornered by the Donnas Anna and Elvira and the hapless Ottavio. It is a small matter, but Don Giovanni and Leporello escape the avengers by threatening the party guests, again using the preemptive force of a gun, a second example of the governing modernist intelligence behind this production.

Natalia Santaliz as Zerlina, Brian James Myer as Masetto, Andre Courville as Don Giovanni, Christian Zaremba as Leporello, and chorus. Photo by Matt Madison-Clark.

The pair escape to the helzapoppin’ second act of swapped identities and gratuitous arias in the dark landscape, including an almost never performed scene from the second, Vienna, version of the opera. Act Two is always a little long after the nonstop action and incomparable music of the first Act, but the extra scene does give Zerlina a feminist and perverse moment, when she catches the malefactor Leporello unaware and ties him up to hilariously feeble protests before he slipped his bonds. On the whole, this post #MeToo version of the old opera gives the women a lot of agency, and this little extra for the peasant girl is a satisfying bit.

Leporello’s situation only gets worse after escaping from Zerlina as he and Giovanni encounter the scary statue of the old Commendatore at his grave. The legendary last scene, where the Commendatore comes to dinner and drags an unrepentant Don Giovanni into his justly deserved descent into hell, cashes out the implications of temptation and punishment that the snakelike alter ego dancer Giovanni earlier laid down. In a last intervention into the old texts, the producers introduce a giant puppet-like figure of death, complete with a long arm to cast dancer Giovanni into his parallel fate. This last may have been over the top, if not actually jumping the shark, but all was forgiven with the graceful and effective transition from that dark scene to the brightly lit optional epilogue, where the survivors map their future fates.

The singing and acting, especially the marquee roles of Elvira, Leporello and the Don, and the heroic playing of the Festival orchestra, crammed into its “pit” in the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center, were a welcome culmination to the Opera Festival’s sixth season. It is a tribute to the consistent and resourceful efforts of this wonderful young company to make this old opera call to a contemporary audience that the audience actually laughed out loud several times during the performance, even in this closing bit where Anna for the umpteenth time puts off her wimpy suitor.

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But Not To Produce.