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The members of the Duke Symphony Orchestra will have a memory to be proud of. It's one thing to play the standard orchestral repertory; it's quite another to play a complete opera, and still another to play a Mozart opera. Bolstered by a fine professional cast, the town and gown (mostly gown) orchestra under their new conductor, Harry Davidson, performed a concert version of Don Giovanni in Baldwin Auditorium. The orchestra put in a creditable performance by any standard and an outstanding one for a student ensemble with no operatic experience.
Any production of Don Giovanni is an ambitious project. First of all, DG is an ensemble opera requiring a deep lineup and an unusual distribution of voices: three sopranos (two dramatic, one spinto), a wimpy-as opposed to heroic-tenor who gets too much air time for his dramatic function, and four bass baritones.
Maintaining balance between singers and orchestra is stiff challenge and Davidson worked wonders in this area, keeping his players under control and, for the most part, under the singers (They can be forgiven for their overpowering fortissimo as the Commendatore drags the Don to his fiery doom.)
Like many concert versions of opera, this one employed limited staging. The singers were by and large all experienced actors and Dean Southern's staging was always appropriate and sometimes ingenious. The comic bits between Masetto and Zerlina utilizing the edge of the stage and even the floor in front of it were particularly effective.
While all the singing was acceptable, two rising stars to watch for are Brian Johnson (Don Giovanni) and Dina Kuznetsova (Donna Anna). Both have clear, fluid voices. Johnson is a lyric baritone, a factor that made for excellent contrast in ensembles with the other three men. Kuznetsova played the grief-stricken and vengeful harridan for all it was worth, flailing around the stage and all but tearing her hair out in a performance that, oddly, didn't come off as tasteless melodrama, but rather contributed to the tongue-in-cheek implications of Lorenzo da Ponte's libretto. And she's just out of training! There's good reason why she is about to make her formal operatic debut with the Deutsche Staatsoper in Berlin in this role and is already scheduled for a fistful of operatic heroines on the soprano fast track.
Donna Elvira, sung by Stephanie Dawn Johnson, was somewhat shrill in her high register although her ariosi were stunningly musical and dramatic. Tonya Neal (Zerlina) was simply miscast. While she is a charming comic actress, her voice is far too heavy for this role, which calls for a soprano spinto . Alfred Anderson as Leporello was stiff both in his singing and acting and seemed unable to play the role for its Sancho Panza type comedy. He also was the only singer to make serious musical mistakes so that he and the orchestra had to tacitly agree to meet at the nearest cadence-and this in the "Catalogue" aria! Occasionally the great concerted ensembles got into similar trouble, but it was their fault not the orchestra's. It should be noted, however, that these kinds of glitches get worked out in the exhaustive rehearsals for most professional opera productions, something unavailable to this cast.
Stage director Dean Southern did fine double duty as the bumbling almost cuckolded Masetto. Brandon Mayberry as the Commendatore is still a graduate student at Indiana but has a mature enough voice to have pulled off a creditable interpretation of a character over twice his age. Poor Clifford Billions as Don Ottavio, one of the repertory's most thankless roles, put in a very musical performance of his two difficult arias, "Dalla sua pace" and "Il mio tesoro" although his voice was on the shaky side.
All things considered, Don Giovanni should be first choice from among this Sunday afternoon's musical offerings. Go, if for nothing else than to hear Kuznetsova and Brian Johnson, and what Davidson can get out of his players.
This production was preceded by an interdisciplinary symposium on the opera, which I had hoped would open up some new approaches to performance and interpretation. Duke associate professor Thomas Plau, who splits his time between the English and German departments, read an erudite paper on the history of the Don Juan theme and its transformations as they reflect cultural and sociological change. His paper-which I wish he had delivered in a more accessible format-submitted Mozart/da Ponte's masterpiece to the kind of heavy analysis that, while interesting as intellectual history didn't illuminate much of practical use.
Donna Zapf, director of Duke's Master of Arts in Liberal Studies program, raised the important issue of the effectiveness and artistic integrity of updating the opera to a contemporary context, as in Peter Sellar's South Bronx setting. She too read her paper, but the topic took shape only after it had been submitted to debate. Composer Robert Ward, instead of coming in with rigidly prepared remarks, added life to the conversation by rejecting the "old wine in new bottles" approach as creating too much cognitive dissonance.
Finally, voice teacher Mary Schiller, from the Cleveland Institute of Music, who has served as coach for many of the production's soloists, made remarks on the various interpretations of the opera available in recordings.
The symposium was sparsely attended and presented at the level of a academic conference. It could, and should, have been designed and marketed for a more diverse audience.