Sunday, June 03, 2007

"Hopeless" Giovanni at SFO

There was a palpable tension and a fair amount of nail-bitting last night, at the opening night of W.A. Mozart's
Don Giovanni at the SF Opera.

Questo è il fin di chi fa mal ...

On one side, there were the boisterous supporters of Elza van den Heever, the young diva who earned her exciting assignment under controversial circumstances; and on the other, the embittered Briggs fans and predisposed skeptics awaiting to see the failings of this Don Giovanni as a confirmation of David Gockley heavy-handed managing style.

Soprano Hope Briggs, originally contracted by Pamela Rosenberg to sing Donna Anna, has performed throughout the Bay Area for nearly a decade now, and built up a modest yet solid following. Indeed, it is hard to find anyone who has seen Briggs give a poor performance, leading many observers to conclude that Gockley's last-minute dismissal of the singer from the production was driven by intramural politics.

Elza: stole the role, stole the show

The good news from the War Memorial last night is that the SF Opera has a thrilling Don Giovanni on stage this summer, and that Elza van den Heever had a great personal triumph in her company mainstage debut in the difficult role of Donna Anna. Even under the unusual circumstances, this stunning production (originally created at Brussels'
Theatre de la Monnaie) is a testament to the kind of opera Pamela Rosenberg wanted to show us in San Francisco. And politically motivated or not, the audience learned that we can trust Gockley to have enough survival instincts to never attempt a stunt like this without a strong back-up plan.

Brilliantly directed by David McVicar, the production has an unmistakably modern European sensibility: austere, architectural sets in shades of charcoal gray; the dark costuming with lots of knee-lenght coats; and a welcome dose of a little nonsense now and then. No trap doors for Giovanni in this production; his after-dinner hell is presented above ground, to great theatrical effect.

And I particularly liked how McVicar solved the theatrically problematic and usually ambiguous staging of Anna's
Non mi dir. In most productions, Ottavio usually just stands there like an idiot, and listens to Anna launch into her freakish coloratura outbursts. For once, Anna delivers the aria (with its widely contrasting sections) as a reaction to Ottavio's pain, who (portrayed by Charles Castronovo) at times collapses on the floor with anguish during the aria. McVicar's one possible staging misstep is at the final tableau, when he has Elvira paradoxically kneel next to the fallen Giovanni, and hold his hand as if in mourning.

The vocal show was uniformily strong. Donald Runnicles at the pit offered the reliable package of crisp Mozartian tempos, keeping things fresh and exciting. And who needs marquee stars, really. All of the men were strong and very satisfying singing actors. Mariusz Kwiecien found a perfect balance between evil and mellifluous seduction for his depiction of Giovanni, delivered with superb skill. Oren Gradus' characterization of Leoporello was a bit predictable, but still fun to watch. Kristinn Sigmundsson was an imposing Comendatore, though his ghost-self was a bit too amplified for my taste. And bass-baritone Luca Pisaroni: what a handsome Masetto.

Che bel Masetto! (Luca Pisaroni)

Elza's Donna Anna sounded very impressive, much better than I expected. She was obviously trying very hard, and brought a good measure of verismo energy into the role, just enough to make it exciting. I was a bit less impressed by Twyla Robinson's Elvira, but it was perfectly adequate performance. The superb Claudia Mahnke was almost too good for Zerlina, with a lustrous, polished aristocratic tone -- reminded one of some of the best qualities in Anna Caterina Antonacci and Lorraine Hunt Lieberson.

© 2007 C. Chang


Blogger sfmike said...

Told you so (about Elza, I mean), although even I was a little overwhelmed at how well she performed in her major house debut.

And you must have had much better seats than my balcony standing room, because the production just looked like mud from the top of the house. The new Jumbotron screens, about which I'm quite ambivalent, were life-savers for this production.

10:09 PM  
Blogger A.C. Douglas said...

A question, if I may.

You write above:

McVicar's one possible staging mis[s]tep is at the final tableau, when he has Elvira paradoxically kneel next to the fallen Giovanni, and hold his hand as if in mourning.

Why "paradoxically," and why a "staging mis[s]tep"?


11:44 PM  
Blogger Ching Chang said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

9:30 AM  
Blogger Ching Chang said...

Hi, AC.

I thought that would be obvious.

Elvira's last desperate exchange with Giovanni at the dinner seems pretty finite, no? She runs away and even faces the ghost of the dead Commendatore, something that surely must want to send one to a convent. By now, she knows he is the damnedest among the damned, and these two MUST be finished and done with.

So it is disturbing to see her return to Giovanni yet again, something the scene of her coming back and holding his hand makes imply, and making one feel that there may be more plot left to Elvira (hence the misstep) in this opera.

Staging it in this way is only possible in McVicar's production, since the body is left on stage for the final scene. Mozart does not set the opera in this way since Giovanni is not suppose to be in the final scene, where they sing "Questo è il fin di chi fa mal."

By the way, in my distracted state I didn't realize this otherwise fine staging was actually rendered by Leah Hausman, so allow me to correct myself.

9:34 AM  

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