Review: Don Giovanni at Belk Theater
By Perry Tannenbaum
February 3, 2022, Charlotte, NC – Among the lovable scoundrels of Western world literature, surely Don Juan has proven to be the most lovable – Molière, Goldoni, Lord Byron, Shaw, and Mozart are just a few of the notables who have sung the Spanish Don’s sins over the past 400 years. His tale can be seen as a series picaresque escapades and comical conquests, or as a grim and grisly revenge tragedy, or as a stern moral lesson. Armed with a wondrous libretto by Lorenzo da Ponte, Mozart disdained to choose among these alternatives, daring to make his Don Giovanni all of the above. With so much to see and emphasize, it’s no wonder that each of the six productions I’ve reviewed since 1991 has been so different from the others – including a Czech National Theatre production at the Estates Theater in Prague, the venue where Mozart’s masterwork premiered in 1787.
In her Opera Carolina debut, stage director Eve Summer pays little attention to scenery, relying on props and Whitney Locher’s costume designs to modernize the action. Donna Anna’s home doesn’t have a façade in the opening scene, where Giovanni flees after raping the noblewoman and is compelled to murder her father before he can escape. Nor is there an exterior, let alone an upstairs, at Donna Elvira’s lodgings in Act 2, when Giovanni serenades milady’s maidservant while Leporello, the Don’s servant masquerading as his master, creates a cunning diversion. Three revolving pods help simulate the places where the swift action unfolds, and Michael Baumgarten’s lighting designs signal the transitions and enhance the drama – especially in the denouement, when the Commendatore, Donna Anna’s murdered father risen from the dead, implacably gets his revenge.
Summer hasn’t totally surrendered to modernity in her vision of Giovanni, for she surely could have gone further than equipping Elvira with contemporary luggage as she pursues the Don and turning the pages of Leporello’s book chronicling the rogue’s romantic conquests into an iPad that he scrolls. Balancing these modern touches are the curved tops of the revolving pods, evoking ancient arches, and the presence of harpsichordist Emily Jarrell Urbanak, seated at stage right throughout the evening. In a way, the singers also straddled different eras, always immersing themselves in Mozart’s music, yet the diversity of the casting – and a few of the dance moves they busted at Giovanni’s soiree – returned us to the new millennium. Most anachronistic were Sequina DuBose as Elvira, lugging her rolling stack of suitcases up a couple of stairs and down a ramp, and Alex Soare as Leporello, discarding his sensationally grungy attire only when he impersonated Giovanni (though Locher’s design here may have also been inspired by the Ghost of Christmas Future).
Dashing, cruel, and overflowing with conceit, bass-baritone Richard Ollarsaba made a stunning debut as Giovanni, even if the mod dress deprived him of the opportunity to unsheathe a sword. His overtures to Elvira, her maid, and the peasant girl Zerlina were all lusciously seductive. Encounters with Leporello and Masetto, Zerlina’s fiancé, crackled with scornful superiority, sometimes snarling and sometimes nonchalant. The old Commendatore seemed to draw the very best from Ollarsada, cavalierly deferential to his age in resisting his challenges to combat in the opening scene, defiant and fatally unrepentant when Giovanni’s fate was sealed. As rich and appealing as Ollarsaba was when he sang, Alex Soare was startlingly convincing as Leporello when the servant was called upon to masquerade as his master. To bring out the servant’s comic flavor, moments when Leporello was marveling at the gullibility of Giovanni’s victims were underscored more boldly than the disillusion, disgust, and abject fear that the Don’s escapades put him through. Nor was bass-baritone Ashraf Sewailam chiefly onstage as Masetto to clownishly portray the peasant’s malleability, showing us far more of the hothead than the usual hayseed. In the same spirit, tenor Johnathan Stafford White as Don Ottavio, Anna’s staunch and patient fiancé, is more of a noble champion than a feckless chump.
Perhaps even more than the men, the excellence of the three sopranos cemented my suspicion that this was the deepest Opera Carolina cast I’ve seen. While Summer didn’t allow Rachel Mills quite as much risqué latitude as I saw in Prague in consoling her battered Masetto, this Zerlina was no less irresistible in her “Vedrai carino,” applying the balm of love on his bruises. Although there were slight chinks in DuBose’s vocal armor, there were no losses in sweetness when there were dips in volume as Elvira sang her woes, and DuBose is such a fine performer that I had second thoughts each time I steered my attention elsewhere – so many of her reactions are worth watching. Most revelatory was Melinda Whittington as Donna Anna, a role I’ve often found annoying in her chaste righteousness. Whittington amped up the feeling of this grieving rape victim while tamping down her outraged fervor. Summer allowed her to wear a color to the Don’s soiree instead of shrouding her in mourning, and those dance moves further humanized her.
The joyous epilogue, celebrating the triumph of justice over wickedness, is scrapped in this new Opera Carolina production. Somehow that enhances the impact of bass Jordan Bisch as the avenging Commendatore. Both at the cemetery accepting Giovanni’s dinner invitation and later at the Don’s banquet hall, Bisch resounds thrillingly as the voice of doom. After blasting my eardrums just three weeks earlier from the Belk Theater stage with Mahler’s Ninth, a discreetly reduced Charlotte Symphony sounded comparatively wan as it wafted the Giovanni overture out of the orchestra pit. But Opera Carolina artistic director James Meena had the ensemble perfectly calibrated for the occasion, and when the curtain rose, the blend of singing and playing gave constant pleasure. As I stepped onto the elevator with another couple, hurrying to beat the Belk crowd out of the parking lot, the husband couldn’t help gushing, “This is the first classical opera we’ve seen!” If future productions are as good as this Giovanni, they will be coming back again and again.