Mozart Triumphs Over Chairs in Alternative Don Giovanni

United StatesUnited States  Mozart, Don Giovanni: Portland Opera, soloists, George Manahan (conductor and harpsichord), Christopher Alden (director), Paul Steinberg (set), Terese Wadden (costumes), Aaron J. Black (lighting), Clinton Smith (chorus master), Keller Auditorium, Portland, Oregon, 10.11.2011 (BJ)

Leporello: Jason Hardy
Donna Anna: Stefania Dovhan
Don Giovanni: Daniel Okulitch
The Commendatore: Harold Wilson
Don Ottavio: Jonathan Boyd
Donna Elvira: Mary Dunleavy
Zerlina: Sandra Piques Eddy
Masetto: Nicholas Nelson

My wife raised a pertinent question as we left the theater. We had just undergone Portland Opera’s re-staging of Christopher Alden’s take on Don Giovanni, a production that garnered some enthusiastic reviews when it was first seen at New York City Opera in 2009. “Why is it,” she asked me, “that all the worst productions we’ve seen have been of Mozart operas?”

I don’t know the answer, but the question is certainly worth considering, given the number of radical distortions of Mozart it has been our fate to witness over the years. There was a Polish company’s touring production whose relentless frivolity turned my favorite opera into what felt like The Marriage of Figaro on Ice. There was a Così fan tutte in Amsterdam from which we fled after just the overture, played with the curtain up to show us a naked woman reclining downstage on a chaise longue. (I’m all for naked women, but there’s surely a time and a place for everything.) And there have been at least three comparably misconceived Don Giovannis, including one in Chicago with Giovanni – use of the honorific “Don” seemed particularly inappropriate – played as a sleazy nightclub owner, and one in Philadelphia in which Leporello sang his opening aria against the background of a scrim that revealed the Don and Donna Anna engaged in vigorous and obviously consensual sex.

That last matter is crucial, and it cropped up disastrously again in Alden’s production. As Alexis Hamilton’s perceptive article in the Portland program book observed, “In this opera, there is some question as to whether Giovanni is ever entirely successful in his romantic endeavors, and his conquest of Donna Anna is an open question” – but Alden was not content to leave any such doubts open. The director has a clear and logically consistent conception of Don Giovanni; the trouble is, that conception seems to inhabit a Ray Bradbury-esque alternative universe far removed from the one occupied by the opera Da Ponte and Mozart actually wrote. Ambiguity is a central and essential element in the work’s character, and to destroy it by repeated bouts of onstage copulation, even of the soft-porn simulated variety, is to turn this inexhaustibly complex drama into something much more simplistic and much less fascinating.

I felt for the cast, almost all of whom offered some fine singing and did their best as actors to realize the director’s vision. Instead of the work’s colorful Catholic milieu, this representation was played against the gloomily monochromatic background of what Alden, in his director’s notes, accurately called a “civic meeting hall/religious space/funeral parlor.” Terese Wadden, the costume designer, had coped very well in the circumstances. Aptly enough, the title character was played as a kind of cross between an undertaker and a zombie. One of Giovanni’s salient qualities is his tireless physical vigor, but this Giovanni was practically catatonic: the unfortunate Daniel Okulitch, who used his well-focused baritone to good effect except when he was asked to croon his serenade to Donna Elvira’s maid, spent much of his time in slow-stepping peregrinations of the stage, often accompanied by Clinton Smith’s well-trained chorus, who – like other cast members – were frequently on hand to convert what should have been intimate scenes between just two or three characters into public events. Much play was made with the two rows of utilitarian chairs on which the chorus was initially seen sitting, and the score of occasions on which someone stood on a chair instead of sitting on it, a tiresome cliché at the best of times, reached a perhaps record-breaking dozen or more.

Excellent singing came also from Stefania Dovhan’s Donna Anna (except in an understandably distracted stab at “Non mi dir”) and from the Zerlina of Sandra Piques Eddy, who was the outstanding vocal success of the evening; both of them were also lovely to look at. I have had occasion to admire the Donna Elvira, Mary Dunleavy, on several occasions in repertoire as different as Mozart and Bizet, but she was obviously having a bad night: her “Ah chi mi dice mai,” in particular, was quite spectacularly off-key.

Harold Wilson was a capable Commendatore and Nicholas Nelson an acceptable Masetto, though both suffered from the indignities Alden heaped on them. The Commendatore was never memorialized with the statue he deserved, but had to get through his posthumous scenes as a corpse in a huge coffin, which often obscured the audience’s view of characters singing behind it – and Leporello nevertheless continued to address him as “statua gentilissima” and to describe him to the other characters in the final scene as “l’uomo di sasso.”

Perhaps the worst dramatic touch was the travesty inflicted on poor Jonathan Boyd. He has a well-produced tenor voice (though, presumably at the instance of conductor George Manahan, his “Dalla sua pace” and several other passages were sung too loudly); the personage he was asked to portray, however, was positively ludicrous. Don Ottavio is a sufficiently unimpressive fellow at best, but I have never before witnessed such a sustained directorial effort to demonize him, culminating in a stentorian performance of “Il mio tesoro intanto,” sung nonsensically in Donna Anna’s presence, and sadistically played as if in the person of Mussolini.

Don Giovanni is a hard work to ruin. Christopher Alden made a determined attempt to do that, but the music thwarted him. We went back to our hotel in need of a strong drink, but still enchanted by Mozart, and by his and his librettist’s indestructible masterpiece.

Bernard Jacobson