Setting 'Don Giovanni' in Bullring Reins in Opera's Potency

Article excerpt


To some degree, masterpieces stand on their own. Few performances of them achieve their full potential. Few are so bad they completely ruin the experience.

Pittsburgh Opera unveiled a new production of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's "Don Giovanni" on Friday night at the Benedum Center. It was problematic, both dramatically and musically. As a result, the opera's greatness was only partially achieved.

Stage director Justin Way made his Pittsburgh Opera debut tackling Mozart's masterpiece for the first time. He decided to set the opera in Seville, Spain, and to use a bullfighting ring for his set. Although there are doors at the sides and back, and also movable panels in the big central space, this set soon wore out its welcome.

Near the start of the opera, when Donna Anna and Don Giovanni entered fighting on a balcony that circles the set, one worried for the singers' safety because the set shook as they moved. Another elevated section was unstable in the second act.

The most absurd moment occurred in the second act to prepare for the entrance of the Commendatore. A huge black-and-white image of an angel, dozens of feet high, was rolled out from the left wing and sat there, looking intrusive and cheap.

Way's conception of the title role also brought cardboard to mind. Michael Todd Simpson performed it with energy and conviction, but this Don Giovanni was just a villain. There was none of an authentic Don Giovanni's elegance, a quality composer Ludwig van Beethoven objected to because he believed evil should not be portrayed as charming. Yet this missing element is one that makes this opera so distinctive and eternally relevant.

Music director Antony Walker approached the score from the perspective of earlier music. He favored a very dry, often vibrato- less string sound. This need not preclude an atmospheric performance if applied with dramatic acuity. Unfortunately, many of Walker's tempi felt off -- by turns too fast and too slow for the music to blossom.

Under these circumstances, the cast fared with varying degrees of success. Jennifer Holloway as Donna Elvira was the most impressive of the women, singing with fine line, intensity and ample intelligence. …