Arts & Events

Updated: Merola’s Muddled Production of Mozart’s DON GIOVANNI

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Friday August 01, 2014 - 11:23:00 AM

Young American director James Darrah, who recently excelled as production designer and director of San Francisco Symphony’s highly successful semi-staged production of Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes, failed to live up to his own high standards in tackling Merola Opera’s production of Mozart’s DON GIOVANNI. At the opening night performance on July 31 at Everett Auditorium in San Francisco, Darrah opted for a unitary stage-set for the entire opera, making it serve all pur-poses as an artist’s studio, a party scene, the home of Donna Anna and her father, the Commendatore, and much else. Tables and chairs got pushed around (by Lep-orello), and the back wall seemed to serve as a kind of bulletin board where Don Giovanni, here portrayed as an artist, hung photographs or sketches of his latest conquests. (At least that’s what I think the various pieces of paper stuck onto the back wall are supposed to offer. However, try as I might, I could not actually see what was on those pieces of paper.)  

Darrah likes to crowd his unitary stage-set with supernumeraries; and he does so at some of the oddest moments. During the overture, Darrah has baritone Edward Nelson, who sings the role of the don, walk through a gaggle of lovely ladies, eye-balling each one in turn. Then Nelson steps to the front of the stage and peers out into the audience. He espies a woman who stirs his interest and signals for her to join him onstage. It turns out to be Donna Anna, here sung by soprano Amanda Woodbury. She gets up from her seat and, accompanied briefly by a confused Don Ottavio, sung here by tenor Benjamin Werley, joins Don Giovanni onstage. Don Ottavio meekly disappears into the woodwork; but Donna Anna allows herself to be prodded, petted, and portrayed in a charcoal sketch by an artistic Don Giovanni, whose art seems highly fetishistic. So far, so good, or at least not bad. We get that this Don Giovanni is an artist of sorts, that this is his studio, and that Leporello, here sung by bass-baritone Szymon Wach, is the don’s studio assistant who no longer relishes his servant’s role. 

Meanwhile, the gaggle of lovely ladies (and their male friends) remain on-stage as the dramatic action between Donna Anna and Don Giovanni gets under way. They even remain onstage to witness at close range the duel between the Commendatore and Don Giovanni, in which the father of Donna Anna is killed. Don Giovanni and Leporello don’t then run offstage; in this production they just melt into the crowd. These supernumeraries (plus Don Giovanni and Leporello) only exit the stage when Don Ottavio asks them to carry off the dead body of the Commendatore. Now alone onstage, Donna Anna indulges her grief at the death of her father and prods Don Ottavio into swearing an oath of revenge. In the role of Donna Anna, Amanda Woodbury is excellent; and as Ottavio Benjamin Werley, while not quite up to Woodbury’s vocal standard, has a pleasing tenor voice.  

Next we find Don Giovanni and Leporello back in the now empty studio. They argue a bit, then break off their dispute when Don Giovanni sniffs out the arrival onstage of a woman, who turns out to be his jilted lover Donna Elvira, sung here by soprano Karen Chia-Ling Ho. As Elvira, Ms. Ho’s voice is a bit darker than most sopranos who sing this role; and this tends to weaken the dramatic shifts of tone and timbre that usually mark Elvira as a neurotic individual whose mood- swings are manic. When Don Giovanni fobs her off on Leporello, the ensuing catalogue aria by Leporello involves a series of art portfolios containing charcoal sketches of nudes who represent Don Giovanni’s thousands of conquests. 

Next comes the wedding celebration of Zerlina and Masetto. Here Don Gio-vanni plays at being a wedding photographer. When he manages to separate Zerlina from Masetto, he sings the famous come-on, “Là ci darem la mano.” Zerlina, sung here by soprano Yujin Kim, picks up his tune, hesitates but soon gives in. By the end of this duet, she’s pulling Giovanni by the lapels and taking the lead in a game of mutual seduction. Masetto, sung here by bass-baritone Rhys Lloyd Talbot, mumbles bitter reproaches to Zerlina.  

Here, by the way, Conductor Martin Katz allowed the orchestra to drown out much of Masetto’s singing, a problem that also cropped up occasionally when Lep-orello was singing. Vocally, Szymon Wach’s bass-baritone did not project all that well; and, consequently, Leporello’s role seemed smaller scale than usual. Even Edward Nelson’s voice as Giovanni, a baritone rather than a bass-baritone, seemed lighter than most who sing this role; and this resulted in a Don Giovanni on a smaller scale than usual, one who was by no means a vital force of nature but rather a cold, calculating fetishist. (Does he even make love to these women, or merely get them nude and sketch or photograph them?) One further criticism I would make of Con-ductor Martin Katz is that he had the bad taste to allow – or even to encourage – Yujin Kim to indulge in vocal flourishes at the end of Zerlina’s aria, Batti, batti, o bel Masetto.” As composed by Mozart, Zerlina certainly needs no improvised vocal flourishes: her utterly charming simplicity does wonders all by itself.  

At the ensuing party scene, set in this production in Don Giovanni’s artist’s studio, director James Darrah unwisely has Yujin Kim portray Zerlina as a raving exhibitionist who dances flirtatiously with every male at the party. Are we at all surprised, then, that Don Giovanni, now fueled by jealousy as well as lust, sexually assaults Zerlina? In yet another unwise move, director Darrah does not have the don drag Zerlina offstage, but has him assault her in the midst of the party-goers, most of whom are too inebriated to care about what’s going on. 

ACT II begins with partygoers sleeping in a drunken stupor, while Don Giovanni exchanges clothing with Leporello, then manipulates him like a puppet in his feigned reconciliation with Elvira. Later, when the don, disguised as Leporello, encounters Masetto armed to the teeth and out to kill him, director Darrah, who thus far has filled the stage with supernumeraries, now ignores the don’s own words about dividing up Masetto’s posse of revenge-seekers, and stages this scene as a one-on-one encounter.  

Later, in the cemetery scene, set in the wee hours of the morning, when Don Giovanni and Leporello encounter the Commendatore’s marble statue, Darrah absurdly stages this as a crowd scene! He also stages the opera’s final banquet as a crowd scene, which allows him to portray this gaggle of lovely ladies as, at first, lusting after Don Giovanni, then turning against him as the Commendatore’s marble statue consigns the don to Hell. Oh well, in spite of having a few good ideas and one or two nice touches, James Darrah has made something of a muddle of Mozart’s DON GIOVANNI.