Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Well-balanced cast and striking production make Seattle Opera’s “Don Giovanni” a must-see

Nicolas Cavallier as the title character in Seattle Opera’s production of Don Giovanni.
Elise Bakketun photo
Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” received superb treatment at McCaw Hall on Saturday evening in Seattle Opera’s season opening performance. A wonderfully balanced cast, crisp stage directions by Chris Alexander, excellent conducting by Gary Thor Wedow, and an inventive set designed by Robert Dahlstrom (that was made for Seattle Opera back in 2007) combined to make this production exceptional – even though there were a few noticeable glitches.

The principals were top notch. In the title role, French baritone Nicolas Cavallier had a self-assured and devil-may-care swagger that made his character strangely appealing and revolting at the same time. Erik Anstine deftly created the tormented, yet dutiful servant Leporello. As Donna Anna, Canadian Erin Wall won over everyone’s hearts with a combination of dignity, sorrow, and anger. Lawrence Brownlee’s Don Ottavio was the perfect good guy. As the Don’s rejected lover, Donna Elvira, Elizabeth Caballero wonderfully alternated between angry determination and craven desire. Cecelia Hall created a fetchingly naïve yet also manipulative Zerlina, and Evan Boyer was totally convincing as her disappointed and disdainful fiancé Masetto. In the role of the Commendatore, Jordan Bisch anchored his basso profundo voice with cold conviction.

Erin Wall (Donna Anna) and Lawrence Brownlee (Don Ottavio) in Seattle Opera’s production of Don Giovanni.
Elise Bakketun photo

Vocally, these were exceptionally well-matched singers, and the numerous ensemble numbers were unusually well-balanced in terms of volume and tone. But if I were to highlight one singer above the others, it was Wall who excelled the most because of the beautiful vocal line and emotion that she put into every phrase and especially in “Or sai chi l’onore” (“Now you know”).

Wedow paced the orchestra very well and never let the orchestra overpower the singers. However, things got a bit out of sync when a small onstage ensemble appeared from the left side. They may have been a bit late on the scene. In any case, it made the dance music a bit loopy for a few bars. It should be noted that Wedow also did double-duty by playing the harpsichord. The only odd thing was that it sounded a bit dull. Perhaps that was due to where I was sitting.

Under the direction of Alexander, the story flowed in a natural way that was easy to follow. One of the most fun people to watch was Caballero who started out very zealous, serious but gradually revealed that that she still loved the Don and then went head over heels when she thought that she had him again in her grasp.

Seattle Opera’s production of Don Giovanni.
Elise Bakketun photo
The main feature of Dahlstrom’s set design was a large wall with an assortment of panels of different sizes that could open as doors and windows. The largest panel opened straight upwards to reveal the digital gallery of nude paintings that graced Don Giovanni’s home, and Leporello got several chuckles as he used a remote to flip through all of them. For the climactic scene, the entire wall splintered from top to bottom so that the Commandante can appear and ask for Don Giovanni. It was a spectacular scene.

Everything went seamlessly except for a Microsoft Windows desktop image with icons on the left side and a toolbar on the bottom right – which was briefly superimposed over the large wall.

The principals and the chorus (most of the time) wore modern costumes designed by Marie-Therese Cramer, but the servants as well as the onstage musicians wore 18th century costumes and wigs. On the one hand, this incongruity in dress seemed very odd, but on the other hand, it did extend the framework of the story from Mozart’s time into the present.

Nicolas Cavallier (Don Giovanni) and Cecelia Hall (Zerlina) in Seattle Opera’s production of Don Giovanni.
Elise Bakketun photo
 The performance was marked by an unfortunate disturbance in the audience during the scene when the Commendante came appeared in order to claim Don Giovanni. One of the patrons on the main floor tried to make a hasty exit but fell down as he tried to go up the aisle. The poor fellow didn’t get back up, and some nearby concerned patrons, including Seattle Opera's new general director Aidan Lang, immediately attended to him. Emergency personnel arrived a few minutes later and talked to him in low voices while the opera continued unabated. As the flames of hell consumed the stage, the man got up and sat down in a device that allowed him to be carried out. The emergency crew and the nearby audience members deserve credit for taking swift yet courteous action. They deserved a round of applause and hopefully the ill man has recovered fully.

This terrific production, planned years ahead by Speight Jenkens who just retired, marks the first opera under the reign of Lang. Glitches aside, it is one of the best “Don Giovanni’s” that I have ever experienced, and I would encourage opera lovers to see one of the remaining productions (Oct. 22, 25, 29, 31, and Nov. 1).

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