BLO's "Don Giovanni": Flagrantly Delectable Hell

Duncan Rock & Steven Humes in "Don Giovanni"
(photo: T. Charles Erickson)
For the final opera in its current season, Boston Lyric Opera has chosen a popular old favorite and given it a decidedly fresh and modern viewpoint. The opera is “Don Giovanni”, one of Mozart's finest works, first performed in 1787 in Prague, reaching American audiences about forty years later. The BLO has created a version that is true to the libretto by Lorenzo DaPonte yet simultaneously breaks new ground. As this production's program notes, the opera has had its champions over the years, from Tchaikovsky to George Bernard Shaw to Stendahl, blending as it does the comic and serious into what Mozart himself called a “dramma giocoso” or jocular drama. It's a story portraying the battle of the sexes and classes, obviously timeless, which Stage Director Emma Griffin has successfully transformed into a tale of a relevant rake hosting a costume party. Don Giovanni is still the narcissistic playboy, still the self-destructive sex symbol. How he meets his comeuppance, being hoisted by his own petard so to speak (the specifics of the finale will not be revealed here), puts the arc of his story in a new light.

In a recent issue of Opera News, the plot was summed up in a single sentence, paraphrased here: In Seville, the servant Leporello (Kevin Burdette) keeps watch as his master, the titular bed-hopper Don Giovanni (Duncan Rock, in his BLO debut) is pursued by a lover, Donna Elvira (Jennifer Johnson Cano), whom he spurned, a husband, Masetto (David Cushing), of a woman he assaulted, Zerlina (Chelsea Basler), a noblewoman, Donna Anna (Meredith Hansen), who spurned him and whose father, the Commendatore (Steven Humes), he killed, and her fiancé Don Ottavio (John Bellemer); but it's the murdered man's graveside statue that finally drags the unrepentant philanderer down to hell. That's it in a rather lengthy nutshell, with almost three hours of glorious music. In this case, however, the ending is tweaked a bit as noted above, (while still respecting the original libretto), to give it an ironic feminist twist that's both apt and ingenious. Let's just say he who lives by the sword dies by the sword.

As with virtually all of Mozart's twenty-two operas, however, it's not the plot that matters most; it's all about the music, both sung and played. The company excelled in both of these departments, with memorable contributions by the BLO Orchestra led by Conductor David Angus and the singing by the entire cast, a varied ensemble composed of several familiar performers (including participants in the Emerging Artists program) as well as a couple of singers making their company debuts. Every one of the principals gets a chance to shine in a solo aria or two, and none disappoint. Rock, who makes an unforgettably dashing sex symbol in the title role, almost manages to make us forgive the Don's excesses with his superb voice and believable acting. All three women are equally memorable, with Hansen, Cano and Basler each delivering lengthy arias in great displays of technique and sound. The same could be said for Cushing, Bellemer and Humes in their supporting roles. The hit of the evening has to have been Burdette, no stranger to the role of Leporello in his distinguished career. His every movement is virtually choreographed with never a wasted or overdone touch, all the while in perfect voice, a tribute to his own timing as well as to Griffin's meticulous direction.

The technical aspects of the production are suitably in harmony with Griffin's approach, from the unit Set Design by Laura Jellinek to the elegant Costume Design by Tilly Grimes, dramatic Lighting Design by Mark Barton, well-executed Fight Direction by Andrew Kenneth Moss, and varied Wig and Makeup Design by Jason Allen. There are a few curious touches (such as a mysterious metallic tiger statue that's prominent in the first act and disappears for the second), but overall the production is one of the company's best offerings in memory. With a score full of hit tunes and a cast that knows how to deliver them, this production is a triumph.

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