The Red “Don Giovanni” Revived in Santa Fe

Lucas Meachem as Don Giovanni. Photo by Ken Howard.

Don Giovanni: Music by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Text by Lorenzo da Ponte
Review by David Gregson:  Santa Fe, New Mexico: August 13, 2009

I recall having had a negative reaction to David Zinn’s sets for this Don Giovanni when they were first unveiled in Santa Fe during the 2004 season, but that review seems to have vanished from the Opera West site. Not so subtly dominated by the symbolically hellish color red (right down to the trees and garden hedges), the production is an ugly and disorienting one. The big and little boxes of the current La Traviata would do just as well to indicate a sense of place. No viewer new to Don Giovanni could possibly know exactly where things are going on in this installation-like mess of wallpaper and assorted objects, scarlet-glowing windows and doorways and ambiguous passageways. Suggestions of street locales, palace interiors, or open spaces are irritatingly oblique.

The color red also fails to complement baritone Lucas Meachem’s interpretation of the opera’s tile role. Meacham, and presumably the director, Chas Rader-Shieber, totally reject the sexy, satanic approach to the Don that has become common these days. Shirtless Giovanni’s abound. And in “the good old days,” Giovanni was often romantic, handsome and glamorous — and he sang a so-called “Champagne Aria” so we could all have a grand time at the party.

But that same aria, “Finch’ han al vino,” has never seemed too terribly carefree since the invention of supertitles and electronic text translations. And Meachem gives us a sort of regular fella who just happens to be slipping ecstasy into the cocktails and seducing a thousand and three women in Spain because – well, that’s what he does. He doesn’t even have much of a sense of irony about his alleged love for women and he seems genuinely surprised to go to Hell for doing what comes naturally.

Photo by Ken Howard.

Meachem also sings the entire part as if it were a lieder recital, rarely giving us the gratifying full-volume sound of which he is capable. One sits there listening to his beautiful voice and wishing it was an evening of Schubert songs instead.

This Don Giovanni includes another wasted vocal opportunity. No doubt soprano Susanna Phillips can be a riveting Donna Elvira, but she and the director opt for a kind of “I am just so befuddled and confused” approach to the role. She even makes her initial entrance doing comic shtick involving a female porter and suitcases and then sings an ambiguous “Ah, chi mi dice mai” that robs the piece of its intended dramatic effect. She is stronger vocally elsewhere, but the sense that Elvira is a little ditzy prevails. As Donna Anna, however, another fine soprano, Elza van den Heever, takes a seemingly more conventional approach and does quite nicely with it.

Van de Heever is paired with an excellent Don Ottavio in tenor Charles Workman. He delivers the two difficult arias, “Dalla sua pace” and “Il mio tesoro”, elegantly and with confidence. He is not your average Ottavio but a masculine religious zealot with a sense of commitment. He might drive a stake through Giovanni’s heart in “True Blood,” the campy HBO vampire soap opera which is currently having grand fun with the portrayal of a Southern religious cult. (I confess – I caught an episode in my Santa Fe hotel and now I’m hooked. It’s a modern-day “House of Dracula” and almost as bad. Er – good.).

Photo by Ken Howard.

Several other good singers are stuck in this mess: bass Matthew Rose, a very appealing and believable Leporello; mezzo-soprano Kate Lindsey, a credibly randy, sweet voiced Zerlina (and not-over-the top and into S&M for a refreshing change); and baritone Corey McKern, a thoroughly engaging and totally likable Masetto.

The worst job in the whole misguided production goes to basso Harold Wilson as the Commendatore. He is required to make his first entrance in a partially drunken stupor, and amongst the gimmick-laden stage effects of the Don-goes-to-hell scene, his magnificent utterances – some of the most thrilling music in Mozart – are muffled when he is required to turn around and go behind the set whilst his ghostly zombie doubles pop up pointlessly here and there. Alice- in-Wonderland cabinetry swells up from the stage, white glowing lights shine from the shelving and – well, you have to see it to hate it.

I would love to see the scene played just one – just once, before I die – the way Mozart and Da Ponte intended it to be staged. This is the one great, great operatic scene that is always better to hear on your home stereo. Directors — leave that scene and that music alone, dammit! Just have “the stone guest” come to the house, knock on the door, and come inside and stand there and sing fabulously like a proper vengeful statue should. Let the Don accept the fatal handshake, and then you can bring up the fire and bring on the demons and be done with it.

I have experienced the Commendatore as a laser-beam show, as a movie, as a projected abstract backdrop, as a vast hoard of zombies, as a puppet, as an invisible presence voiced offstage, as a wheeled-about effigy, as a semi-naked corpse, as a green mannequin, as a bag of flour, as Darth Vader, and – now – as a trio (?) of aimlessly wandering spooks. Hard to say just how many there were.

Meanwhile, conductor Lawrence Renes coaxed highly respectable results from the Santa Fe Opera Orchestra – which, by the way, rarely disappoints with its level of playing. I am often surprised to hear harsh criticism from friends and colleagues, but they may be listening for something they want to hear or are familiar with from their favorite recordings.

In the finale, it must be said, Mozart’s on-stage wind bands were not to be seen; the sounds appeared to come from the pit. Not a terribly satisfying musical solution to the problem. The composer’s intended (im)balance between pit and on-stage musical groups was lost.

Despite everything, by the way, this imperfect evening was consistently interesting, contained some intriguing dramatic touches, and focused one’s attention on the singers and their dramatic interaction. A bit of a mess, yes — but it can by no means be written off as a disaster.

Photo by Ken Howard.

Donna Anna – Elza van den Heever
Donna Elvira – Susanna Phillips
Zerlina – Kate Lindsey
Don Ottavio – Charles Workman
Don Giovanni – Lucas Meachem
Leporello – Matthew Rose
Masetto – Corey McKern
Commendatore – Harold Wilson

Conductor – Lawrence Renes
Director – Chas Rader-Shieber
Scenic Designer – David Zinn
Costume Designer – David Zinn
Lighting Designer – Japhy Weideman
Original Lighting Designer – Duane Schuler
Chorus Master – Susanne Sheston

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