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Monday, October 17, 2011

SF Opera Breathes Dark and Lusty Life into 200-Year-Old Don Giovanni

Posted By on Mon, Oct 17, 2011 at 10:30 AM

Lucas Meachem is on fire in the title role of Don Giovanni. - CORY WEAVER
  • Cory Weaver
  • Lucas Meachem is on fire in the title role of Don Giovanni.

Within the past three years, local audiences have had the opportunity to experience productions of Mozart's Don Giovanni on a small scale (SF Parlor Opera), a medium one (SF Lyric Opera), and now large (SF Opera). On one hand, this crop of recent stagings reflects the work's status as the quintessential operatic warhorse. But on the other, its appeal to such varied companies suggests that Mozart's 1787 masterpiece is ever conducive to fresh interpretation. Happily, the visually compelling, dramatically alive production that debuted at SF Opera on Saturday night proved that even after more than 200 years and untold performances, it's still possible to offer vital new takes on the Don.

While there was nary a weak link in the vocal performances, Saturday's premiere was especially remarkable for its dramatic excellence. The performers seemed alive to every nuance of the libretto and the music, and played off of each other with a flair and ease that's a rare treat in opera. It's obvious that director Gabriele Lavia (a TV and film director, and an actor himself) possesses a deep understanding of the work's dramatic potential, and also was able to impart his vision to every member of the cast.

With his strapping physique and powerful yet seductive voice, baritone Lucas Meachem seemed tailor-made to portray Don Giovanni's swagger and insouciance. Yet his performance transcended the notorious wham-bam-thank-you-ma'ams -- here was a Giovanni with psychological depth. Witness the "Champagne Aria," in which Giovanni orders the feast that provides the context for his next seduction: Meachem delivered his riveting, rapid-fire account while standing stock-still at center stage, as though possessed by the prospect of another deflowering. It was a nifty twist on the dynamics of sexual power, and it brilliantly foreshadowed Giovanni's demise, in which he finds himself in the grip of forces even more implacable than those of lust.

Marco Vinco as Leporello - CORY WEAVER
  • Cory Weaver
  • Marco Vinco as Leporello

As Giovanni's put-upon servant, Leporello, bass Marco Vinco enlivened every scene he was in with expressive singing and phenomenal physical acting. Despite Giovanni's rep as a ladies' man, the gloriously dysfunctional Giovanni-Leporello relationship is the most central to the work, and the rapport between Meachem and Vinco helped to anchor the opera's episodic plot.

Aristocracy in distress: Ellie Dehn as Donna Anna - CORY WEAVER
  • Cory Weaver
  • Aristocracy in distress: Ellie Dehn as Donna Anna

Soprano Ellie Dehn, who shone in her SF Opera debut opposite Meachem as Countess Almaviva in last season's The Marriage of Figaro, portrayed another distressed Mozartian aristocrat -- the ravished Donna Anna -- with equal grace, including a poignant version of the aria "Non mi dir." As Don Ottavio, Shawn Mathey put his fine tenor to particularly effective use in "Il mio tesoro," swearing to exact revenge on Giovanni for his crimes against Donna Anna and her father (though fate has other plans, it's still a nice sentiment). After a timid entrance, soprano Serena Farnocchia sang Donna Elvira with fiery intensity. And if the whole opera thing doesn't work out for bass Morris Robinson -- though his rich, resonant voice indicates otherwise -- his stony, all-gray depiction of the Commendatore's statue would make an unsettling addition to Market Street's throng of buskers.

Morris Robinson adds a creep factor as Commendatore's statue. - CORY WEAVER
  • Cory Weaver
  • Morris Robinson adds a creep factor as Commendatore's statue.

Rounding out the cast were tenor and first-year Adler Fellow Ryan Kuster as the peasant groom, Masetto, and mezzo-soprano Kate Lindsey as Zerlina, his easily starstruck bride. Lindsey displayed impressive agility in both the vocal and physical realms -- her "Batti, batti, o bel Masetto," in which she attempts to soothe her husband's jealousy over her liaisons with Giovanni, was delivered as she executed a coy quasi-lapdance. Musical director Nicola Luisotti gave a nimble reading of the score, though the orchestra seemed ever so slightly out of sync with the vocalists at a couple of points.

The production's aesthetic felt plausible and cohesive -- Andrea Viotti's costumes and Alessandro Camera's sets evoked an abstracted 17th-century Seville without belaboring either historical accuracy or the few, judicious modern touches. The stage's space was configured for different scenes through the use of 21 mirrors, which were raised or lowered from above to create the impression of different settings. Sometimes this tactic was effective, though at other times, the mirrors' presence felt arbitrary (and they occasionally caught awkward reflections of lights and related equipment). However, the spareness of the staging ensured that the performers were always the dominant element -- perhaps the fact that there was nowhere to hide contributed to the dramatic intensity of the performance.

SF Opera's Don Giovanni runs through Nov. 10 at the War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness (at Grove), S.F. Admission is $21-$330. Sung in Italian, with English supertitles.

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Emily Hilligoss

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