|Parker Drown, Zina Ellis, Matthew Gamble, Samarie Alicea, John Taylor Ward, Leela Subramaniam, Felicia Moore, Barrington Lee, and Keith Browning
in Heartbeat Opera's Don Giovanni
There is just so much to say about Heartbeat Opera's Don Giovanni which opened last night at the Rose Nagelberg Theater at the Baruch Performing Arts Center! Where shall we begin? Let us save the spoilers for the end so that prior knowledge will not affect your astonishment when you attend--and we truly hope you will! This production had a great deal of buzz last night so do not delay.
We are generally dissatisfied when a director undercuts the meaning of an opera with a self-serving concept. Dear readers, if you have been to the Metropolitan Opera in the past few years you know exactly what we are disparaging.
But what if a director completely reimagines an opera that we know and love, sweeps away the ingrained clichés, and sheds new light on the drama. A museum piece, adapted by the right hands, can take us to new places with new insights and relevancies. Director (and Co-Artistic Director of Heartbeat Opera) Louisa Proske has the right hands.
Daniel Schlosberg is credited with arranging Mozart's music for Cantata Profana, Heartbeat's resident chamber ensemble. The five strings (string quartet plus bass) were augmented by the clarinet of Gleb Kanasevich and the harpsichord of Aya Hamada. This produced a very interesting sound, but we sometimes felt like something was missing although we don't know enough about orchestration to identify it. For the party scene the musicians joined the action onstage. Conductor Jacob Ashworth played first violin.
Because opera is about the voice, let us tell you how splendidly the cast sang. The astonishingly versatile bass-baritone John Taylor Ward made a superbly seductive Don and used his fine instrument to illuminate the character of a narcissistic sociopath, reminding us of the pussy-grabbing POTUS. Furthermore, his expressive long lean frame added significantly to his performance.
The three women achieved new status in this production. The Donna Elvira of soprano Felicia Moore, whom we know very well from her extraordinary work at Juilliard, was not a comic figure played for derision. Her work was authentic and sincere; she created a believable portrait of a woman who genuinely cares about a worthless man and also cares about rescuing Zerlina from his clutches. The timbre of her voice and her astute phrasing convinced us of her value as a human being, the kind of woman we know as a "rescuer". Her "Mi tradì quell'alma ingrata" was superb.
The Donna Anna of soprano Leela Subramaniam, whom we well remember from her fine work at Manhattan School of Music, was particularly fine, using a fine bright tone to explode the tried-and-true characterization of the virginal young aristocrat. This characterization was a creation of Ms. Proske and Ms. Subramaniam fulfilled it perfectly. Details will follow.We loved the way she sang "Non mi dir".
Soprano Samarie Alicea, well remembered from her work with the International Vocal Arts Institute three years ago, not only sang splendidly but demonstrated major chops as a comic actress. Whatever she felt about the Don came across in her mobile face as well as her flexible voice. Her "Batti, batti o bel Masetto" was beautifully sung and had a twist. Keep reading!
Baritone Matthew Gamble, whom we remember from IVAI and also from Martina Arroyo's Prelude to Performance, showed his stuff as the much put-upon Leporello. There was a traditional and well sung "Catalogue Aria".
Barrington Lee used a wonderfully rich bass-baritone to enact the Commendatore and also Masetto, managing to color his voice differently in such a successful manner that we thought it was two different singers! This casting strategy was also used at the opera's Vienna and Prague openings in the 18th c.
Don Ottavio was portrayed by tenor Keith Browning who was deprived of both of his arias.
The ensemble singing was notably wonderful.
If you have not seen this production yet, we recommend that you stop reading here and resume after you have seen it. And see it you must!
Director Louisa Proske has reimagined the story to focus more attention on the women of the #MeToo generation. Each one approaches her sexuality in a different manner. Perhaps you might even recognize yourself in one or more of them. They may be victims or survivors or masters of their own destiny but they are not ciphers.
We have always had a problem with the opening scene of this opera. If Don Giovanni is raping Donna Anna why does she pursue him? We have always believed that she is in love (or lust) with him and will never ever marry the kind supportive Don Ottavio. But we are not a theatrical director and had to wait for Ms. Proske to make this clear.
The two lovers are going at it hot and heavy in a bedroom when Donna Anna's father the Commendatore bursts in on them. The girl cowers in shame while the Don kills her father. She cannot admit this to her fiancé Don Ottavio and concocts a rape story. False news? LOL.
Neither is Zerlina an innocent. Ms. Alicea's face and body limned her initial scorn and her later willingness to be seduced. She too must put on a show for Masetto and pretend to be innocent. But everything changes when the Don decides that rape is easier than seduction. The sardonic slant and sexual innuendo of her "Batti batti" might have delighted the randy Mozart as much as it delighted us.
Donna Elvira truly wants to save Don Giovanni, as we mentioned above. She is the "rescuer" and we all know women like that who fall for bad boys and try to reform them.
In Ms. Proske's version (BIG SPOILER HERE) the three women and Don Ottavio gang up on Don Giovanni, strip him naked and beat him. He is left quivering on the ground at the end of Act I and if you want to see some amazing acting, just look at Mr. Ward's feet!
At this point, the orchestration became very very strange. You will just have to hear it for yourself.
In Act II, he is in some kind of hospital room, totally hebephrenic. Measurements are being made, tests are being performed and disturbing appearing treatments are being administered. The other characters are in what appears to be a hospital waiting room, signing documents and comforting one another. Don Giovanni hallucinates; the doctor is perceived as the Commendatore. He is in a hell of his own making. The horror of this scene is so intense that even the final ensemble cannot relieve it.
The major feature of Kate Noll's set is a large cube with a plate glass side. This served as bedroom and hospital room. What confused us was that there was a neon sign on it reading "MOTEL". Perhaps the Commendatore saw his daughter's car out in front? Well, there were a couple similar inconsistencies but the transmogrification of plot elements worked for the most part.
Beth Goldenberg's costumes were apt, especially that for the gum-chewing Zerlina whose white wedding dress barely covered the essentials, so to speak. "Come fuck me" shoes completed the fashion statement.
We could go on and on but we hope that by this time you have seen it for yourself. Since a picture is worth a thousand words at least, we will put a carousel of photos from the production on our Facebook page Voce di Meche. Enjoy!
(c) meche kroop