We are here to encourage the development of gifted young singers and to stimulate the growth of New York City's invaluable chamber opera companies. But we will not neglect the Metropolitan Opera either. Get ready for bouquets and brickbats.

Saturday, August 20, 2016


Leah Crocetto as Donna Anna in Mozart's Don Giovanni (photo by Ken Howard)

Nothing matches the thrill of opera when everything comes together.  Apt casting, effective conducting, great singing, respect for time and place, colorful costuming and sets that "stay out of the way".  Last night at the Santa Fe Opera, we saw and heard a Don Giovanni that will remain in our memory, thanks to all the above conditions being met.

Mozart's music is sublime from the portentous opening chords in D minor, leading to a stunningly melodic overture replete with upward and downward scale passages; this lets us know we are in for quite a ride.  Mozart even inserts a private joke toward the finale; the Don enjoys listening to the Count Almaviva's aria "Non piu andrai" from Mozart's own previously written opera Nozze di Figaro. And just listen to the party scene when we hear a sedate minuet for the aristocrats and a lively peasant dance simultaneously!

The opera premiered in Prague in 1787 toward the end of The Enlightenment. The social order was shifting and aristocrats were fair game.  Lorenzo Da Ponte's radical libretto included attempted rape, murder, licentious sexuality and freedom of expression. It also reflects upon an interesting aspect of Mozart's character; Mozart was quite a rebellious rascal himself and refused to repent his behavior, although a controlling father would have had him do so. 

The eponymous Don was portrayed by bass-baritone Daniel Okulitch who not only sang with gorgeous tone and phrasing, but who commanded the stage with great power and presence.  This Don seems to have some self-awareness and has a sense of humor, even when abusing his servant Leporello. We particularly enjoyed his "Champagne Aria" and his serenade "Deh vieni alla finestra"--in which he employed very different coloration.

Leporello was portrayed by bass-baritone Kyle Ketelsen. Mr. Ketelsen, making his debut with the Santa Fe Opera, was just as effective at drawing laughs from the audience as he was at singing. Does anyone not love the "Catalogue Aria"? He portrayed the character as easily bought and ultimately eager to find a less troubling master.

The role of Massetto was given an interesting twist by second-year apprentice Jarrett Ott. This young baritone has star quality written all over him. He not only has a steadfast tone but the ability to create a believable character.  Massetto is usually portrayed as a clumsy simpleton but Mr. Ott's peasant exhibited strength and will, leading to all kinds of interesting variations on the theme of his relationship with Zerlina. He could be a worthy rival to Don Giovanni and was only held back by the power of the aristocracy.

Lithuanian tenor Edgaras Montvidas is new to us and to the SFO as well. His tone has more texture to it than that we usually hear in the role of Don Ottavio, which made his duets with Donna Anna that much more interesting. He performed both of his arias with feeling--"Dalla sua pace" and "Il mio tesoro". The lavish applause was probably 90% for his lovely singing and 10% bonus for being completely unflappable when the heavens delivered a torrential downpour that swept through the partially open house.  Too bad the storm didn't wait for the scene when Don Giovanni gets dragged into hell!

As the Commendatore, Soloman Howard, also making his SFO debut, used his booming bass and stage presence to create a terrifying figure.

Lest you think that the men carried the show, let us reassure you that the three female parts were brilliantly sung and played. As Donna Anna, soprano Leah Crocetto, first heard at SFO in Maometto II six years ago, was a revelation. Her tone is substantial in size but creamy in texture. Her "Non mi dir" in Act II was deeply affecting.

Keri Alkema's Donna Elvira was equally compelling; her soprano was variously colored as she went from loving feelings to angry ones. We especially enjoyed her aria "Mi tradi quell'alma ingrato".

The role of Zerlina is a great one and Welsh soprano Rhian Lois was absolutely adorable. This role is her American debut and it was an auspicious one. She has one of those sweet light instruments that falls pleasantly on the ear.  She excelled in both arias--"Batti, batti, o bel Massetto" and "Vedrai carino". Her duet with Mr. Okulitch, the famous "La ci darem la mano" was pure delight.

If you surmised that the ensembles came across marvelously well, you would be as right as the rain that doused the house.

Mozart's magnificent score was well played by the orchestra, under the baton of John Nelson. Apprentices graced the stage as liveried servants and (strangely) nuns.

Thankfully, director Ron Daniels did not try to impose any weird concepts on this work, which is firmly rooted in the late 18th c. It is indeed a dramma giocoso and the direction milked every ounce of humor from the libretto. This served to make the final horror even more powerful as the Commendatore dragged the Don to a fiery hell, in which the stagecraft worked quite well.

This is not to fault Mr. Daniels but no director has ever made clear why a woman would pursue a man who tried to rape her. In this production, the Don is not wearing a mask so it became confusing when it took so long for her to recognize him as her father's killer.

The costume design by Emily Rebholz added much to the visual impact. Costumes seemed to be modern interpretations of 19th c. styles and were uniformly flattering.

Scenic design by Riccardo Hernandez was spare--just a few sconces on the wall and a huge sculpture of a head which occupied a substantial amount of onstage real estate. It was supposed to suggest a death mask but we didn't perceive it as adding anything to the otherwise perfect production.

However, Marcus Doshi's lighting design compensated for the lack of sets. In the party scene, the lighting was warm, as if the room had been lit by thousands of candles.

(c) meche kroop

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