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Monday, April 30, 2012

Opera Review: The Fast Track to Hell

Juilliard Opera ends its season with Don Giovanni.
by Paul Pelkonen
Donna Elvira (Devon Guthrie) the Don (JeongChal Cha) and Leporello (Alexander Hajek)
party on in Stephen Wadsworth's new Don Giovanni. Photo by Nan Merriman © 2012 The Juilliard School.
In the past two years, the Juilliard Opera has produced performances at the Peter Jay Sharp Theater that have regularly outshined their bigger, flossier neighbors at the opera house with (hocked) Marc Chagall paintings in its windows. This week, they did it again with a new Don Giovanni, a sleek, uproarious production that captures the anarchist spirit of Mozart's darkest comedy.

This new production by Steven Wadsworth is also a treat for Mozart nerds (like this writer.) Mr. Wadsworth chose to present the 1788 Vienna edition of the dramma giocoso, which has a new scene for Leporello and Zerlina, and a number of important stage cuts (one tenor aria and the Epilogue.) The opera now ends with Don Giovanni's damnation and Mozart's bleak D minor chords.

The relationship beteen the Don (JoongCheol Cha) and Leporello (Alexander Hajek) is unusually close in this opera: the servant as mirror-image of his master. Perhaps the director is suggesting that the Don's night-time adventures lower his noble station?) Better yet, the two men never forget that this is comedy, not class warfare--and play their scenes accordingly. Their relationship is also symbiotic: at one point Leporello (who was wounded in a sword-thrust during the Act I duel) gives up his bandage to heal the Don. One cannot function without the other.

Mr. Cha plays the title role with a dark swagger, always restless and on the edge of sex or violence. His champagne aria (taken fast, but not garbled) captures the essence of the character as an elemental male force, dangerous, uncontrollable but always interesting to be around. To some degree, the wild desperation in his headlong lifestyle gives the hint that he is going to hell in a bucket, and may be enjoying the ride.

Mr. Hajek adds Leporello to a string of fine comic performances at Juilliard, following last year's Gianni Schicchi. He turns the grumbling servant into a seductive, dangerous force in his own right, showing how all those serving wenches and tavern girls got added to the massive catalogue he carries. Especially effective, his scenes with Donna Elvira (Devon Guthrie) where the rogue realizes some of the benefits of his master's dissolute lifestyle.

Ms. Guthrie plays Donna Elvira with a sharp edge, not as a neurotic, but as a self-possessed lady who genuinely loves the Don but is unafraid to pick up a sword to keep him in line. She is a stronger presence than Donna Anna, (Karen Vuong) a reverse of the normal circumstance. Ms. Vuong sings with genuine opera seria style, and her scenes with Don Ottavio (Yujoong Kim) had dramatic tension. Deprived of "Il mio tesoro," the tenor did a lovely job with his one remaining aria. 

Takaoki Onishi and Ying Fang were an engaging pair as Masetto and Zerlina. Mr. Onishi had his thumb on the hair-trigger violence of the peasant husband, suggesting that his raging jealousy didn't just apply to the Don. Ms. Fang used the rarely included duet "Per queste tu manine" to mine the iron core underneath Zerlina's flirtatious nature, and sang with a pleasing light soprano. Finally, bass Ryan Speedo Green is a stolid presence as the Statue: although his voice is not quite the terror from beyond one wants in this part, at least it isn't amplified.

Mr. Wadsworth chose a simple, elegant set design: nestling prosceniums that suggest 18th century theater, and a very good trompe l'oeiel backdrop that depicts a Seville town square. The important effects (read: the statue) are not overdone--the dinner guest is not stone, but the dead Commendatore's bloody revenant. This Shakespearean moment is effective, and surprising. Bright limelight, not flames, suggests the Don's removal to the next world.

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