Hidden Valley Opera, September 15, 2013

Don Giovanni on a budget?

By Scott MacClelland

For its new production of the Mozart stage classic, the Hidden Valley Opera Ensemble—which gets infrequent opportunities—has depended heavily on the talents of conductor Stewart Robertson and designer/director Robert Darling. The tiny orchestra of 8 instruments, lead by violinist Roy Malan, also imparts continuity, having played La bohème early in this 50th anniversary season and The Gift of the Magi in 2011. Likewise the chorus, in the La bohème production.

But in this case, the cast of singers is all new—with one exception—and, on Sunday afternoon, sounded of a type, some more robust, some more lyrical, with no remarkable breakouts to speak of. To their credit, they grew more at ease in their musical roles as the performance unfolded. The vocally most secure and consistent were Igor Vieira at Leporello, Anna Noggle DG at HVas Elvira and, especially in the second half, Jennifer Jakob as Donna Anna. Gregory Gerbrandt’s Don Giovanni worked the stage well if with less vocal authority. Tenor Zachary Engle’s Don Ottavio was so light that he tended to disappear in the ensemble scenes. (Nevertheless, Ottavio, who is all talk and no action, gets two of the most opulent arias in the entire opera.) Nora Graham-Smith as Zerlina struggled with pitch but, when secure, delivered a hearty mezzo alluring in tone and expression. Her Masetto, Ryan Bradford, acted a bright presence even while the composer doesn’t give him much to work with musically. Hidden Valley veteran Art Shuller’s Commendatore was, well, commanding as the statue-come-to-life in the penultimate scene.

For all the best individual moments—Leporello’s “catalog aria” (sung to an IPod), the Giovanni/Zerlina duet, and the big soprano arias—the overall performance lacked both drive and intensity, musically as well as dramatically. This may have resulted from insufficient preparation time; the basic dramaturgical vision and physical setup were clearly in place. Done in the round, a central raised stage was rotated lazy-Susan style—by a crew of young women whose shapely curves were enhanced by skin-tight black leather—that demarked changes of scene. Stage entrances came from the corners of the room, both floor level and raked. Matthew Antaky’s lighting design cast shadows and articulated edges from light to dark, from festive party-making to spooky graveyard scene, and with most vivid effect when Giovanni goes to hell amid swirling smoke and fiery red color.

The orchestra, small it was, covered all the notes and stayed in good balance with the voices. Yet Robertson’s direction imparted little suspense, a crucial attendant when murder, jealousy, violence and righteous retribution are at hand. Don’t blame Mozart; the story line dictates it. The same is true for the stage direction. While there is no shortage of charged drama afoot, there are equal bits of comedy. (The composer called Don Giovanni an ‘opera buff.’) In that case, none is more inspired than the two Ottavio arias. This character’s use to the drama is his utter uselessness; he quite literally slows down the narrative with irrelevant coloratura paeans to his betrothed, Donna Anna, that implore others—anyone?—to actually implement his blandishments. His second act aria, Il mio tesoro—the English language libretto by WH Auden was sung here—drones on and on with extravagant Baroque melismas that should make the other characters on stage start to roll their eyes, or look at their watches. Instead, music and direction maintained as serious a pose as the character remained ‘above it all.’ The joke never took off or caught on.

Nor did the reverential tone of what should be high entertainment ever really subside. Gravitas certainly has its place here, but so does comedy. Darling’s idea of 21st century characters with 18th century music had the result of restoring Baroque opera conventions, with aristocrats (Giovanni, Anna, Elvira and Ottavio) stuck in two dimensions while the ‘real’ flesh and blood people (Leporello, Zerlina, Masetto, and sometimes Elvira) tried with limited success to charge the proceedings with much needed electricity. The Don Giovanni himself, straddling both but largely eclipsed by the others, failed to provide the spark.

Remaining performances this Thursday, Friday and Sunday. Photo by Tiffany Velasquez-Walker: Gregory Gerbrandt, Nora Graham-Smith and Zachary Engle as Giovanni, Zerlina and Masetto.