Opera Review Print



Two Takes on Don Giovanni - Part II: In the Don's Clutches

June 12, 2004 - Raleigh, NC:


Our colleague Jeffrey Rossman was leery, and with some justification, I suppose, but he was, as we used to say in the music fraternity at UNC, "the only man for the job," what with two people down the road in Charleston, three more up the road in Pittsburgh, and the rest of 'em otherwise occupied. I was to have been away, too, so the pressure was on our resident cellist (who played in Duke's Don G orchestra several seasons ago), but as it happened, our own trip didn't happen, so total immersion in Don Giovanni , as rendered by Capitol Opera, became not only possible but desirable. The opera's been done hereabouts, of course, but never before has it been given four times in three days, by two different casts of mostly young, mostly local singers. And as we CVNCers have noted time and time again, every performance is different. The fledgling Capitol Opera group, which aims to present opera for Triangle residents featuring Triangle singers, managed to set a whole raft of new standards, all by itself. For openers, the rehearsals, while not publicly advertised, were open, allowing media reps, friends of the company and its singers, critics, etc., the chance to experience the forging of an opera - two of them, really, since only one singer was common to both casts. Talk about work! It's clearly a major undertaking to put on an opera once or twice, but to put on two separate casts, even with the same chorus and chamber orchestra, and to achieve any measure of reportable success whatsoever - well, that's really a lot of work. And never mind that, while most of the songbirds were moderately svelte, some of them sort of resembled, well, your stereotypical opera singer, so there was surely additional work for the costumers.... The set and the lighting, by Thomas Mauney, didn't change from cast to cast, but Stage Manager Sarah Stanton had to prep twice as many people as usual. Rossman mentioned the costumes, which clearly required lots of stitching; David Willem Serxner's designs (and his own stitching, and his family's stitching, and the stitching of a flock of other stitchers - some of which stitching was said to have been going on up till half an hour before the first performance) took into account the various (unspecified) social positions of the characters. The garments were simple, and there was no lace or velvet to speak of, but the show looked really good. And as Rossman has noted, the simple sets and the simple lighting worked amazingly well, too, thanks in large measure to the truly splendid singing and playing. It's a funny thing about opera - and dance, too. Sometimes the non-star casts are best, overall, since the ensemble is often so much better. And the absence of "stars" can mean that listeners pay much more attention to the music, rather than waiting for Madame X or Herr Y to blow everyone out of the seats. That's the beauty of Glyndebourne, to cite a world-class venue where lengthy preparations and rehearsals lead to astonishingly unified presentations. Although the schedule for Capitol's Don G was insanely tight, and the orchestra was not brought in till very late in the game, the quality of the preparations was clearly very, very high. If truth were told, it's likely that sheer determination on the parts of all the participants made it work; if so, then there was a lot riding on it, and it was a big gamble, but it paid off handsomely.

In the "other" cast, which is to say, the cast heard on opening night, the Leporello was Brian Lowry, a true bass, and Don Giovanni was James J. Rollins. (Lowry has sung in several other COR productions; Rollins has more wide-ranging experience.) In many performances of this opera, it's hard to tell those two folks apart, but in the performance under discussion, the roles were clearly delineated, vocally. Donna Anna and Don Ottavio were sung by Courtney L. Durham and William Chamberlain, respectively, singers who have graced area stages for some time. (She was OCNC's Turandot understudy, and he was Pong in that company's recent production of the Puccini opera.) They too made a fine and finely-matched pair, vocally. Kimberly Wagner and Gregory Geiger were Zerlina and Masetto; they are young but both hold promise, and she soared with particular effectiveness. Kimberley Bentley was Donna Elvira, and she made the most of her part, which occupies middle ground, dramatically, between the aristocratic Anna and the peasant maid Zerlina. (Bentley's credits include the premiere of J. Mark Scearce's Kitty Hawk .) The distinguished veteran singer Don Johnston was the highly effective Commendatore in both casts.

For the record, the artists in the other cast not already named in the preceding commentary were William Trice (Ottavio), Cecily Anne Boyd (Elvira), Colene Birchfield (Zerlina), and Jordan Wilson (Masetto). I didn't hear either of the public performances involving these artists, but their work during the dress rehearsal was strong. Rice and Trice (I am not making this up!) were an impressive "power" couple whose large voices filled the hall; Boyd brought elegance and grace to her role; and opera debutantes Birchfield and Wilson did amazingly well, too.

Al Sturgis (whose name is often given as Alfred E. Sturgis) is MD of the NC Master Chorale and the Tar River Philharmonic and Principal Conductor of the Carolina Ballet, when that company uses an orchestra. He's a strong choral person whose skills and abilities have grown considerably since he took up leading orchestras, too. His work on this occasion - on June 10 and during the dress rehearsals - was impressive. The band struggled a bit in the first run-throughs but, like the singers, they came together by the first curtain. Concertmaster Kelly was, as noted above, a strong presence; so, also, was Jonathan Kramer, NCSU's cellist, who took up the mandolin, too, and harpsichordist (and rehearsal accompanist) Janis Dupre. As Rossman has noted, the chamber group was effective, after the somewhat abbreviated Overture, and at no point did they overwhelm the vocalists. The Overture wasn't the only number that was truncated; there were some other minor trimmings here and there. One of the cuts was large and disfiguring - it was in the opera's sublime finale - but one can understand why it was done..., and only those who know the opera well (or who were following scores) would have noticed it.

Let the record show that there was not a microphone or amplifier or loudspeaker anywhere in the hall at any point. That alone set this run apart from most other regional attempts at opera. The substantial crowd on hand for opening night carried on like many opera audiences do, and with sincere appreciation. COR General Director Joel Adams and his staff and the board of COR have much to celebrate - and much to do, before the company resumes work next fall. Meanwhile, bravo!