"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.
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