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Sunday, September 6, 2015

Opera Review: Pride. Prejudice and a Zombie

Gerald Finley is Don Giovanni from Glyndebourne.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Gerald Finley and Luca Pisaroni in Don Giovanni.
Photo by Bill Cooper © 2011 EMI Classics/Glyndebourne Festival.
Mozart's Don Giovanni has long been burdened with the title of the "greatest" of all operas. And yet, it remains an elusive subject for directors who seek to bring something new to the tale of a rakish nobleman and a dinner date gone horribly wrong. This performance from the Glyndebourne Festival (originally released by EMI, broadcast by Medici.TV and viewed on Amazon Prime Video on Demand) preserves the production by the team of director Jonathan Kent and Paul Brown that graced the Glyndebourne Festival in 2010.

Mr. Kent updates the story to the mid-20th century with modern suits and costumes for most of the singers and a changeable set that rotates and moves through a Fellini-like series of waking dreams. Mr. Brown sets the nocturnal action around a large rotating box set, which keeps up with most of the opera's rapid-fire scene changes yet feels curiously impersonal. There are some real innovations here: Don Ottavio's decision the end Giovanni's Act I ball by quite literally setting fire to his house, and the Don and Leporello (Gerald Finley and Luca Pisaroni) presented as interchangeble mirror images.

Mr. Finley's baritone has just the right combination of grandeur and snarl, making the Don both detestable and yet strangely compelling at the same time. This is a tricky cocktail to mix, but he does well with it, singing his lanes with rapid-fire precision and putting genuine warmth into his efforts to woo Anna, Elvira, Zerlina and anyone else with the sound of his voice. He's at his defiant best in the final scene, going down to a bad end in a manner that could educate others who would sing this role. (Mr. Kent is to be commended--he came up wit ha new and innovative (and yet, really gross) way to stage this opera's hellish finale.

Luca Pisaroni has become a known quality as Leporello. Here he relishes the comic opportunities he's provided with. A highlight is his Act II duet-cum-bondage-session with the fiery Zerlina of Anna Virovlansky. Here, the sadomasochistic wench (remember, she's the one who sings "Batti, Batti, bel Masetto" in the first act!) finally gets to be on top to great comic effect. It's also impressive that with his wrists and ankles bound, his neck in a belt-collar and a stocking over his head, he's able to make a bunny-hopping exit stage left.

Modern touches and updates abound throughout this staging. The Don's "catalog" is an album of Polaroids, emphasizing Leporello's complicity in his master's activities and his own essential voyeurism. The three maskers at the ball show up in actual costumes for once, with Elvira (Kate Royal) suggesting the tragic clown of Pagliacci. She sings a detailed and rich Donna Elvira. In a very fast "Mi tradi," Ms. Royal expresses all of Elvira's inner conflict and succeeds in making her an empathetic woman in love and not some forced and desperate cartoon.

It is even more difficult to make the bereaved and revenge-driven Donna Anna into a viable character. In a performance that marked her her U.K. debut, the Russian soprano Anna Samuil makes the most of her chance with a pointed and thrilling "Or sai chil onore." This challenging vengeance aria is her chance to flesh out her character and she does so with every line and turn of phrase. There is warmth and color in her "Non mi dir," making this Donna Anna more sympatheic than usual. She is well-paired with the pleasing lyric tenor of William Burden, who gets to sing only one of his arias w. As the brooding Masetto, Guido Loconsolo's response to Zerlina's "Batti, batti" makes him something more than a brute in a dapper wedding suit.

From the first bars, Vladimir Jurowski directs the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment in a performance that surges ahead but never feels rushed. He brings a Beethovenian weight to the opening chords and creates the sense of propulsive energy that is so often missing in the theater. With period instruments and a pianoforte for the recitatives, this is a fresh-sounding performance. When the grisly, undead Commendatore (played by Brinsley  Sherratt) shows up to take the Don to his bad end, this gruesome final scene feels like a satisfactory finish to a race well run. With a climax like this, the epilogue (included here) seems even more superfluous than usual.

Watch Don Giovanni Unmasked, a mini-documentary about the Glyndebourne production.

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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.