By Sheila Abrams
If Mozart’s Don Giovanni went by its original name, Il dissoluto punito, (the rake punished), it would give away the whole thing. The opera, thought by some to be Mozart’s greatest, spends three hours convincing the audience that the title character is a scoundrel. He doesn’t reap his just desserts until the end. And we must say that he does it in a spectacular way.
On August 21, the Baroque Orchestra of New Jersey ended its week-long summer festival with a semi-staged concert version of the opera in Dolan Hall on the campus of The College of St. Elizabeth in Convent Station. And it was done very well indeed.
The orchestra was on stage, with the singers performing in front of them. The singers, however, were in costume, had the use of some rudimentary props and acted out the plot as it evolved. Helping the audience to understand what was going on were libretti translated into English, distributed to audience members with their programs. (Apparently there were more audience members than anticipated, and there were not enough libretti for everyone. A disappointment!)
Interestingly, Mozart called Don Giovanni a comic opera. Considering that within minutes of the opening, the handsome Don is introduced by the screams of Donna Anna, the latest victim of his “seduction,” we’re not sure that comic is a good description. The fact that she is screaming would suggest something more aggressive than what we think of as seduction. Moreover, minutes later, the Don kills Donna Anna’s father, the Commendatore, in a duel.
The glittering overture was reportedly composed by Mozart at the very last minute, in time for the 1787 premiere in Prague. The first aria, Notte e giorno faticar, is sung by Leporello, the Don’s faithful servant. The resounding bass voice of Hyong Sik Jo in the role set the standard for the rest of the singers.
The killing of the Commendatore sets off the plot. Donna Anna and her betrothed, Don Ottavio, vow vengeance and begin a pursuit of the elusive villain. It makes little sense to follow the story because, despite the mixture of comedy and melodrama, the plot is secondary to the music. And the music is gorgeous.
It is difficult to say which of the three sopranos with featured roles was the most spectacular. Karole Lewis was a fine Donna Anna, and Tonia Manteneri was lovely as Donna Elvira, another victim of the Don’s love-‘em-and-leave-‘em philosophy. Perhaps most impressive, though, was the petite Jacqueline Leiva, a small woman with a big voice, as Zerlina, a peasant girl. Her duet with the Don as he tries to entrap her, “La ci darem la mano,” was simply glorious.
The men in the cast were equally impressive. Kevin Peters, the only tenor, was a wonderful Don Ottavio, and Illya Roitman as Masetto, the peasant betrothed to Zerlina, was impressive.
Mozart made the Don the only baritone in the cast, and that role was ably sung in this production by Robert Prowse. Also a gifted actor, he was convincing as a man whose appetites supersede any moral imperative. Despite his beautiful voice and good looks, he came across as self-absorbed and ruthless.
The ending of the story, though, is strange and unexpected. It is a supernatural hand that extracts vengeance. When the Don mocks the gravestone statue of his victim, the Commendatore, (beautifully played and sung by Don Sheasley), the statue comes spookily alive and ultimately releases demons that drag the Don to hell. An unforgettable ending!
We wonder how musicians feel about concert versions of opera. The orchestra members are in full view and yet more or less invisible. They, under the baton of Maestro Robert Butts, were the foundation of the work. This was a very ambitious undertaking, and the full house suggested that there is indeed an audience for opera in the area.