Don Giovanni, Philadelphia

A new production unleashes the titular lothario, focusing on sex, lies and plot escape hatches.

By Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Libretto by Lorenzo Da Ponte

Nicholas Muni, director  and set design

George Manahan, conductor

Opera Philadelphia, Academy of Music, Philadelphia

April 25 – May 4, 2014

Opera Philadelphia director Nicholas Muni took a gamble last year at the Academy of Vocal Arts, setting Mozart’s “Cosi fan tutte” in the 1960s with soldiers deploying to Vietnam and interpreting the already couple-swapping libretto to the “make love, not war” era. It worked. In Opera Philadelphia’s new production of “Don Giovanni,” Muni unleashes that sexy beast Don Gio, even if he can’t smooth out the opera’s plot points, focusing entirely on sex, lies and plot escape hatches.

Canadian baritone Elliot Madore as Giovanni gets to stalk around the stage in leather pants and Matrix length coat in pursuit of the women of Seville, his curls tumbling over his shoulder. If the tenor broke into “Need You Tonight” by INXS, it would have completely fit in. Madore sings Don with such ease, his characterization had a Milan runway look, and vocally, he is a silky baritone, but detailing is secondary.

In contrast, conductor George Manahan isn’t as lusty with Mozart’s score; he is subtler, with the foreboding grandeur lurking on the periphery, but, crucially, the orchestra sounded underpowered when they could be helping the narrative with more sonic thrust.

As Donna Anna, soprano Michelle Johnson, one of several AVA alums in the cast, seemed rushing through in her front scenes, even with the action and emotion coming in seeing her father dead on the floor at the hands of Don Gio. But later, during her scenes of sung dialogue and extended aria, Johnson brought contralto tones and precision phrasing.

Meanwhile, Donna Elvira (Amanda Majeski) has just arrived in Seville to track down the Don, her new husband, but finds out through Leporello that she is one of thousands of conquests all over Europe. Soprano Amanda Majeski is volcanic elegance, with a gold-center voice that nonetheless conveys her farcical anger.

Tenor David Portillo as Ottavio, Anna’s betrothed, conveyed just enough irony singing of his jealous love, as Anna and Gio were seen in the background making love via a frame (not the only voyeuristic perspective Muni used). Bass-baritone Joseph Barron played Giovanni’s servant Leporello, almost stealing Madore’s scenes, mugging and slinging lines in fine voice.

Bass Nicholas Masters was nothing less than commanding as the spectral Commendatore, chilling and flawless but in beautiful basso reserve that doesn’t bottom out in the fateful dénouement. Fellow AVA alum, Baritone Wes Mason conveyed the right level of jealousy and vocal prowess as Masetto. His bride, mezzo Cecelia Hall’s Zerlina, was in the impossible situation of appearing too flightly not to stay by her husband’s side on their wedding day. Meanwhile all of this hazy exposition didn’t stop this couple’s great vocal chemistry.

Muni’s designs were often in motion, and as attractive as the design initially was, at points it seemed distractingly disconnected to the action. The stark raked stage, with minimalist and modulating classical frame over it and a metallic raked inset stage, was striking, but as it morphed, it looked more haphazard. The scene in the grotto where Giovanni escapes to regroup looked like a sketch comedy set. Other concepts worked much better, like the ballroom scene, with the cast and chorus carousing in front of a billowing curtain that is drawn over them; the ballroom opulence was grand beaux arts.

Lewis Whittington

Philadelphia, PA
Lewis Whittington writes about the performing and film arts for many publications. He is a renegade dance, theater and opera queen, a jazz-head and a civil activist.