Saturday, March 6, 2010

Review: 'Don Giovanni'

Virginia Opera
Joseph Walsh conducting
March 5, Carpenter Theatre, Richmond CenterStage

Theatrically and musically, "Don Giovanni" is hard to pin down. Mozart and his librettist, Lorenzo Da Ponte, styled it a dramma giocoso – a crossbreeding of tragedy and comedy. The two modes often butt up against each other and occasionally overlap.

Lillian Groag, stage director of the Virginia Opera production that closes its run this weekend, underscores another ambiguity: "Mozart and Da Ponte don’t easily separate the ‘good guys’ from the ‘bad guys,’ " Groag writes in her director's notes, "and although Don Giovanni’s iniquity is beyond doubt, the absolute innocence of his victims is to varying degrees questionable." In this production, the seducer’s victims are not just self-righteous but almost as obviously randy and calculating as the don.

The director sometimes carves these character traits with a fine blade, at other times with a blunt instrument. The difference is clearest in the two great arias of the peasant girl Zerlina (sung here by Sarah Jane McMahon), which rank among the most sublimely romantic tunes Mozart ever wrote. While singing "Batti, batti, o bel Masetto," McMahon acts out a pretty explicit bump-and-grind; in "Vedrai, carino," whose words are more erotically suggestive, her physical gestures are more subtle and her vocal tone more pure. Similar, if less glaring, cognitive dissonance arises in the characterizations of the opera’s two other wronged women, Donna Elvira (Cristina Nassif) and Donna Anna (Nicolle Foland).

No such complications in the male characters: Don Giovanni (Matthew Worth) is a shamelessly manipulative, self-absorbed, ultimately defiant anti-hero. His manservant, Leporello (Daniel Mobbs), is a plaintive, greedy and cowardly comic foil. Don Ottavio (Chad A. Johnson), Donna Anna’s fiancĂ© and would-be avenger, is a sap with a soulful veneer. Masetto (David Krohn), Zerlina’s husband-to-be, is a jealous bumpkin. And the Commendatore (Nathan Stark), the ghost of Donna Anna’s father, slain at the outset by Don Giovanni as he flees the daughter’s bedchamber, is the grave voice and unyielding figure of retribution.

Worth, a University of Richmond alumnus (class of 2000), returns to town in a role he thoroughly commands, vocally and dramatically. His physical vitality carries every scene in which he appears; his timing, pitch and diction set a standard that only Mobbs matches. Their exchanges, enhanced by Mobbs’ comic acting, are by far the most satisfying of this production.

Among the women, only McMahon seems to understand that Mozart requires a style that differs from 19th-century vocalization. Her colleagues tend to swamp melodies in big, vibrato-heavy tone, and too often lag behind the beat. The muddying effect is especially pronounced in ensemble numbers.

Erhard Rom’s set, dominated by a Georgia O’Keefe-ish backdrop, otherwise hued mostly in black and white, is one of the more effective minimalist designs the Virginia Opera has employed.

Joseph Walsh, the company’s associate artistic director, leads members of the Virginia Symphony in a stylish, atmospheric and moderately paced reading of Mozart’s score.

The production’s final performance begins at 2:30 p.m. March 7 at the Carpenter Theatre, Sixth and Grace streets. Tickets: $32-$99. Details: (982-2787 (Ticketmaster);