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Cincinnati Opera's Don Giovanni, with Schoeny, Kuster, Meade, Bilgili, Cabell, Blake and Meachem
© Philip Groshong 2013
Cincinnati Opera opened its ninety-third season on June 13 with an accomplished if somewhat uneven account of Mozart's Don Giovanni.The sets and costumes were based on those designed by Nicholas Muni and David Burdick for Cincinnati's 2004 production of the opera. The stage was raked and built up sufficiently to house a dozen or so trapdoors, through which characters could enter, exit and retrieve or stow a variety of props (including the multiple volumes of Don Giovanni's list). The rest of the set consisted of walls that could be repositioned to define different spaces and a set of scrims, framed like portraits, which were raised or lowered at different points in the action. Variously opaque, transparent, or functioning as screens for projection, the scrims concealed or revealed action throughout the evening. The simple, uncluttered staging allowed the opera to unfold without interruption.
Stage director Tomer Zvulun brought out the considerable darkness in Don Giovanni, particularly in Act I. During Leporello's opening scene, the audience could see through one of the framed scrims that Donna Anna's resistance was minimal, thus making her later account to Don Ottavio seem less than truthful and suggesting that her calls for vengeance are driven in part by feelings of guilt for her father's death. Likewise, Leporello was made an accomplice in the death of the Commendatore, who in this staging had overpowered and unmasked Don Giovanni before Leoporello intervened. Zvulun also emphasized the violence in the relationship between Zerlina and Masetto, who knocked her to the ground before she began her "Batti, batti." (She got in a few licks of her own in Act II.) Comedy was not slighted, however, particularly in Act II. Some of the director's choices were less convincing, particularly with regard to the Commendatore (having the statue appear at Don Giovanni's party at the end of Act I; positioning the singer onstage alongside the mortuary statue in the cemetery in Act II), and some were simply puzzling (who were the two additional statues accompanying the Commendatore in the banquet scene?). Still, it was a thoughtful production that never settled for routine.
In the title role, the physically and vocally imposing Lucas Meachem dominated the stage, easily conveying Don Giovanni's power over others. This was a driven antihero, capable of charm (notably the mezza voce second verse of "Deh vieni alla finestra") but impatient to add more entries to his list. His manic "Finch'han dal vino" was emblematic of his obsession.
Like Meachem, Angela Meade was making her Cincinnati Opera debut, and she was a highly satisfying Donna Anna. Hers is a sizeable voice, and the sheer sound of "Or sai chi l'onore" ringing out in the house was exciting. Perhaps given an extra edge by her behavior in the opening scene, the recitative leading up to that aria was intense. (The supertitles discreetly omitted Don Ottavio's responses to her narrative, thereby avoiding inappropriate laughter at that point.) "Non mi dir" was exceptionally well sung, despite Meade's being asked to kneel during the difficult final measures. In ensembles, she scaled her voice back to blend with the other singers.
The Leporello of Burak Bilgili made a strong impression as well. An adept comedian, he was genuinely funny in his exchanges with Don Giovanni, particularly as they traded roles at the opening of Act II. His catalogue aria was quite well sung, and his cries of "Viva la libertà" dominated the ensemble in the party scene.
Nicole Cabell, whose previous Mozart assignments in Cincinnati were Pamina and Countess Almaviva, returned to the company for Donna Elvira. Dramatically committed throughout, Cabell provided some attractive singing, particularly in the trio near the end of Act I. However, much of Elvira's music lies low for her, so that a number of phrases lacked sufficient weight. She also made an unobtrusive break in the recurring long phrase near the end of "Mi tradì."
Don Ottavio, the respectful fiancé who perpetually defers to Donna Anna's wishes, has few opportunities for action beyond soothing her. Singers who try to make the character more forceful often end by sounding merely petulant. Aaron Blake avoided that trap, singing forthrightly but elegantly. It is not a particularly distinctive voice, but he gave a polished account of "Il mio tesoro," taking each of the notoriously long phrases in a single breath.
In the crucial role of the Commendatore, Nathan Stark showed a voice of some substance, holding his own with Don Giovanni. The Zerlina (Alexandra Schoeny) and Masetto (Ryan Kuster) made an appealing couple onstage; they have attractive voices, but both seemed a bit small for a house this size.
Except for the inclusion of "Mi tradì," the performance followed the original Prague version of the opera. Singers ventured a few embellishments of the vocal lines as well. Making his Cincinnati Opera debut, Roberto Minczuk led a brisk but well-shaped performance. The raised stage may have made it more challenging for the performers to see him, but ensemble problems were evident in only a couple of spots (the beginning of Zerlina and Masetto's wedding in Act I and the very rapid opening of Act II). As always, the Cincinnati Symphony provided distinguished playing.
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