Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Don Giovanni

Two years ago, Opera Theatre of St. Louis produced the most exquisite production of Mozart’s Il Re Pastore.  As I said at the time, the voices were perfect.  Clear, with perfect diction.  I think that people can have different ideas about what constitutes the perfect voice to sing Mozart.  In my book, the singers in that production of Il Re Pastore were the perfect Mozart singers.

Last year, OTSL produced Mozart’s  The Marriage of Figaro.   I wrote that, although I enjoyed the performance, I thought that it was, musically, a little bit sloppy. And although I enjoyed a few of the voices, I didn’t like Maria Kanyova’s performance because her diction was poor.  And the orchestra and the singers didn’t seem together sometimes.

This year, OTSL is producing Mozart’s Don Giovanni.  Don Giovanni is a womanizer and possibly a rapist, who murders the father of one of his proposed victims at the beginning of the opera.  Throughout the opera he is unrepentant and at the end a statue of the murdered man comes to life and tells him if he doesn’t repent he will go to hell.  He goes to hell.   It’s a long opera (as are most Mozart operas) and there is a lot of decadence and carousing and people impersonating each other during that time.  It isn’t my favorite Mozart opera and I think I’ve only seen it two other times.  But it is Mozart and I’ve always enjoyed it before.

I thought about not even writing about this production.  As Thumper’s father said, if you can’t say anything nice don’t say anything at all.  But I do have a few nice things to say.  It was worth the price of admission to hear David Portillo’s Don Ottavio.  He had what I consider the perfect voice for Mozart – clear, ringing and perfect diction.  I wouldn’t say he was the best actor of the bunch, but Don Ottavio is a bit of a stiff character anyway.  Kathryn Leemhuis was also very good as Zerlina, a country girl who is spotted by Don Giovanni on her wedding day but manages to fight him off.   Andrew Gangestad was The Commendatore, the statue who comes to life, and he was so mesmerizing in his scene toward the end that I didn’t even notice that the conductor disappeared at some point to be replaced by someone else in the pit.  His voice was simply perfect, although I rather wish they had staged him up on a pedestal so he would have been physically more imposing.

The other singers worked very hard to put on a fine performance in less than ideal circumstances.  The fact is that they all had lovely voices – they just weren’t my ideal Mozart voices.  If I had been casting this opera I would have cast others.  But they did a fine job.   Maria Kanyova, who I adored in Ghosts of Versailles, gave a moving performance although she was once again plagued by terrible diction.  Although when she was singing with David Portillo he seemed to bring out the best in her.  

If the production behind the singers hadn’t been such a mess, I would be telling you that it was a fine production despite the fact that the voices were not my perfect Mozart voices.  But it wasn’t a fine production.

It isn’t even the problem that I didn’t like the set or the costumes or the lighting.  Although I didn’t.  The costumes were all from different time periods and didn’t go together.  That was just weird.  The set was boring and the lighting was too dark and it made me want to go to sleep.  Which is not something you need in an opera that is over 3 hours long.  And while I get that Don Giovanni was hosting an orgy – the background “choreography” in the scene at the end of the first half was just far to distracting.  Background actors should enhance the lead actors and NOTHING should distract from the music.  The choreography did both.

But I might have even been able to get beyond all that if it had been a clean production.   I often go to productions that I think are OK even when I don’t agree with the choice of set or costumes, etc.  But the production last Thursday was just a mess, beginning with the overture. The overture to Don Giovanni is pretty famous and it sets the tone.   And at OTSL the orchestra is made up of the Saint Louis Symphony so it isn’t as if there are a bunch of amateurs playing.  But the overture was muddled.  Then the first 10 minutes of the opera were almost unintelligible.  The diction was so bad that even the recitatives were beyond comprehension (and for some reason they don’t put supertitles for the recitatives, so we had no help).  I’m inclined to blame the conductor, Jane Glover.  And since she disappeared before the end of the production I’m wondering if she wasn’t feeling well and that affected the performance.  The final sextet was the clearest and most cohesive bit of music in the production and it was done under the direction of whoever it was that took over in the pit and the singers had their eyes glued to him.  Other than that sextet, there wasn’t a moment in the opera where I listened to the voices blending and didn’t think – “but they aren’t blending!”

But the absolute worst moment in the opera was toward the end of the second half when Maria Kanyova was singing a lovely and melancholy aria.  The scene was being changed behind the curtain and it sounded for all the world like the entire cast had donned army boots and were marching up and down behind the curtain.  There were loud sounds as scenery was moved.  It almost became funny.  All the people around me were looking at each other with their eyebrows raised.  

I didn’t go on opening night so it wasn’t as if there were still kinks to be worked out.  I delayed writing this.  I don’t really like to write anything about OTSL that is not mostly glowing.  This is the 25th year that I’ve had season tickets.  So  I thought that maybe as I thought about it more this week I would feel less irritation.  But I didn’t.   Maybe the other performances will be cleaner.  I hope so.  Because OTSL has a reputation to maintain. 

Oh, one other good thing about the performance last Thursday.  As we walked into the theater one person in my group said that she had never seen an audience at OTSL with so many people who were younger than us.  Which is great!  It’s a shame they didn’t see OTSL at its best. 

Click here for a video about the production.  And no, I have no idea why OTSL doesn’t produce videos that can be embedded.  But they don’t.