Way to Go
I remember a friend once talking to me about a scene in Shakespeare's As You Like It. The melancholy nobleman Jaques has just joined his exiled fellows and is excitedly describing a recent encounter: "A fool, a fool, I met a fool in the forest." In some of the most famous language in English drama, he describes this fool, evokes the futility of human pursuits ("And so from hour to hour we ripe and ripe, and then from hour to hour we rot and rot"), and eventually begs for a fool's costume for himself, saying he'll use it to cleanse the world through laughter. Scarcely pausing for breath -- and after a brief interruption -- he's off on the monologue that every British schoolchild has at some point memorized: "All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players..."
It's one marvel on top of another, my friend said, image chasing idea and idea chasing image, as if Shakespeare's mature genius and his boundless creative fecundity were a racing torrent that simply couldn't be stopped.
That's pretty much how I felt after seeing Mozart's Don Giovanni at the Central City Opera House. The music keeps coming, scene after blissful scene, with no sign of fatigue or let-up on the composer's part -- solos, duets, trios, quartets, a sextet, voices flowing together, combining and separating, weaving patterns and marking contrasts, a meltingly beautiful wave of sound that leaves you breathless. But there's nothing sugary or fulsome about this music. Mozart has too much wit and humor, and his lines are too pure and transcendent to cloy. Some people say this is the greatest opera -- perhaps the greatest piece of music -- ever written, and they'll get no argument from me. And under the sure baton of John Baril, Central City Opera has assembled voices that do the score justice.
The plot in brief: Don Giovanni has made a career of seducing every female who crosses his path, and by the opera's end, the pain and destruction he has caused return to destroy him. Early in the action, he kills the father of Donna Anna, whose bedroom he secretly entered (the distinction between the attempt at seduction and the act is fuzzy here, as is the distinction between seduction and rape -- though it is clear that he mesmerizes his victims). Giovanni flees the scene of the killing, and all manner of mayhem ensues: He's followed everywhere by the jilted Donna Elvira, who considers him her husband; he attempts to wield some kind of droit du seigneur over a peasant girl, Zerlina, filling her husband-to-be, Masetto, with rage; Donna Anna and her fiancé, Don Ottavio, are also trailing him, vowing vengeance. Throughout, he bullies his servant, Leporello, into assisting with his schemes. Finally, he confronts the statue of the man he killed, the Commendatore, in the graveyard, and mockingly commands Leporello to invite the statue to dinner. The statue seems to nod, and that evening it arrives to lead Don Giovanni to hell.
I've been listening to recordings of Mozart's operas for years, and I know generally how they flow; my mind starts playing the introductory notes a second or so before each song actually creeps in. But I've only seen Don Giovanni on stage once, and I don't speak Italian, so although I had the broad outlines of the plot in my mind when I went to Central City, I didn't know what music accompanied what plot point, which aria belonged to which character. It turns out that the loveliest sound often accompanies absurd or dishonest action. Giovanni sings a sweetly lilting love song, for example, in a callous attempt to add Elvira's maid to his list of conquests. And I was surprised to learn that Zerlina's pretty song of reassurance to her betrothed actually means "Beat me, beat me, lovely Masetto." She's teasing, of course. I guess. And what a sexy little minx soprano Deborah Selig makes her. I had heard rumors that this was to be a racy Don Giovanni, perhaps involving sadomasochism and leather. But while the marriage celebration did feature quite a bit of undulation as well as a large hookah, nothing particularly disturbing happened. Perhaps director Marc Astafan toned down his original conception in deference to local audiences. If so, I'm grateful. I don't mind sex on stage and I enjoy nakedness, but I don't like thinking of Zerlina and Masetto as bondage freaks.
Don Giovanni is less lighthearted than The Marriage of Figaro, but it's still funny; there are scenes -- the statue's stony nod, Leporello's gulling of Elvira -- that can be seen as either serious or amusing, and sometimes both. Jeff Mattsey brings psychological richness to his portrait of the Don. Periodically, he betrays a touch of humanity in the midst of his heartless hijinks, and his defiance at the end -- when he refuses chance after chance to repent -- is magnificent. So is the moment (also brilliantly directed by Astafan) when he touches the statue's hand and is frozen in horror. Mattsey is a virile figure on stage, but that almost doesn't matter: His voice is so strong and fine, it would persuade any sentient woman to fall on her back for him. Philip Cokorinos, who conveys all the anger, humor and humiliation of Leporello's servile station, also has a powerful bass baritone, and the two voices sound thrilling, both solo and together.
The production is blessed by the presence of three wonderfully talented women. Emily Pulley brings to Elvira a bell-clear tone that deepens into full-throated passion when required; her acting, too, is deeply felt. Selig is purely charming, both aurally and visually. Sally Wolf's acting is less expressive, but her singing is splendid, particularly during the aria in which Anna asks Ottavio to allow her grief to subside before pressing her to marry him: "Non mi dir, bell'idol mio." Chad Shelton, who plays Ottavio, has a swelling tenor as rich as cream. Christopher Bolduc's youthful Masetto seems a little subdued at first, but both his voice and his presence become stronger as the evening progresses.
Astafan's staging is interesting -- lots of black, red and flame imagery, a focus on mirrors, boxes and entrapment. He has chosen to end the production with Giovanni's anguished descent into hell -- and I imagine this will work well once the technical glitches I saw on opening night have been ironed out. Still, as we left the theater and began our trip down the mountain, I found myself longing for the sense of peace and resolution of that missing final chorus.
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