Parents lock up your daughters. Daughters lock up your mothers – and your grandmothers for that matter, because the Portland Opera has unleashed Don Giovanni upon mild-mannered Portland in conjunction with the city’s month-long celebration of all things Mozart. For a total of four performances, the lascivious Don will seduce women, laugh at danger and find his horrid fate as he stalks across the boards in the opera that bears his name. For many it may be worth the price of admission to hear Mozart’s sublime score, and as cultural currency there is much to be said about being able to see the opera on stage without having to travel far afield. However, for those with whom Mozart is a common delight or for whom the opera is a regular outing, the performance may fall a bit short.
The story of Don Giovanni is familiar even in our modern times. He is a womanizer, which is a character trait in men that seems to have never gone out of style. The Don is the “love ’em and leave ’em” type who travels around the world seducing the young and the old, the thick and the thin, with supreme confidence in his looks and abilities. In other words, he is an arrogant bastard. Still, the opera delights in his conquests, even while the cast of characters that surround the Don grouse about his wickedness, and with good reason.
He begins his journey by killing the father of a woman he is attempting to seduce. What’s worse, the Don was a friend of the family. The daughter, Donna Anna, must now seek her revenge. She is only one of many who’d like to bring Don Giovanni down. The list of those the Don has angered snowballs as the opera progresses, but their retribution is consistently dodged by the gleeful Don. It is this glee that drives the opera. There is more humor than one might expect and the libretto, written in the 18th century by Da Ponte, revels in bawdiness.
When the Don angers the spirit of the man he killed in the first act and is ultimately dragged into hell, accompanied by Mozart’s terrifying, thundering climax, the moralistic denouement seems like a comical afterthought. Indeed, during last Saturday’s performance when the few remaining moral characters sang of what happens to wicked men, there was no shortage of ironic laughter.
We are introduced to the Don in the overture; shirtless and clad in leather pants, he flings his arms toward the audience and grins. It’s an odd choice to use the overture in this way. An overture is a ritualistic thing, generally presented without action, used to introduce us to the various musical themes we will be hearing over the course of the opera. In this production, Portland Opera has made the overture a strange kind of background music as Don Giovanni prepares himself for his exploits. It is a bit awkward but it is endemic to the mix of modern and classical that seems to be at the heart of this production.
Purists may balk at the set that looks to have been modeled after a black leather padded cell or a velvet painting or mirrored bathroom from the ’80s, but not the 1880s. Still, it is merely a small distraction. The set design does offer several clever devices, most in the form of trap doors, to keep the opera moving through transitions. However, the design lacks the sense of class one might expect from a Portland Opera production of Mozart.
The biggest challenge for Portland Opera and, by extension, the audience, comes from the horrid acoustics of the Keller Auditorium. After all, what ultimately matters about an opera is how it sounds. Many cast members have a difficult time filling the sound-sucking void of the Keller. There are, however, some gorgeous voices in the cast. Laquita Mitchell as the strong and resolute Donna Anna has no problem filling up the auditorium from floor to ceiling with her sparkling soprano. In her first duet, “Fuggi, crudele fuggi,” Donna Anna mourns with her patient admirer, Don Ottavio, played capably by Shawn Mathey. Mitchell’s performance is simply jaw dropping.
Aside from some problems with sound, which are as much due to the venue as the cast, Don Giovanni is a good achievement with some fairly delightful directorial touches. For instance, a violent aria from Zerlina in which she begs her husband to beat her is ended with gentle contact as the lovers reconcile by gently and coyly playing footsie. Also, the earth-rattling finale in which red-cast demons emerge from hell is quite thrilling.
In the end, how are we to judge Don Giovanni? He was given a life that he lived to the utmost, disregarding obstacles to live as he chose, come what may. Some loved him, many didn’t. In the final analysis, the Portland Opera production of Don Giovanni may be viewed the same way.
Nevertheless, it is Mozart after all. The question is, would you rather sit in the comfort of your home and listen to the opera from a soulless CD? Or would you like to see a performance, with all its faults and glories?
Don Giovanni has two more performances: May 18 and 20 at 7:30 p.m. For ticket information call Portland Opera’s box office at 503-241-1802 or visit their web site: www.portlandopera.org.