Sunday, April 26, 2009

A classic version of a timeless classic

Zerlina heads to the chapel in BLO's Don Giovanni.

The most beautiful sound in town right now is probably being heard at Boston Lyric Opera's new production of Don Giovanni, which boasts one of the most superbly balanced vocal ensembles I've ever heard in this town. (And of course in what may be the greatest of Mozart's operas, ensemble is everything.) Somehow BLO has pulled together the kind of cast one would be lucky to hear at the Met (and indeed, many have sung there): Christopher Schaldenbrand's Don Giovanni, Matthew Burns's Leporello, Matthew Plenk's Don Ottavio, Heather Johnson's Zerlina, Kimwana Doner's Donna Elvira, and especially Susanna Phillips's Donna Anna would all be noteworthy on any stage, but to be honest, in Boston the constellation of six powerhouses in a single cast is all but unknown. That the staging, though not flawless, is nevertheless mature and perfectly poised in tone is simply the icing on the cake. The production is destined to become a local legend, and if I weren't already completely booked for the rest of its run, I'd be paying full price to see it again.

And it caps what has been a remarkable year for Boston Lyric Opera (and its first under new artistic leadership). The company has already produced, in Rusalka and Les contes d’Hoffmann, the two most spectacular fantasies seen on a Boston stage in some time. These productions were undermined, however, by some vocal unevenness; Hoffmann had two luminous sopranos but only an adequate tenor; Rusalka had the opposite problem: a dazzling tenor but a stiff soprano. Don Giovanni, by way of contrast, is less splashy in its sets (they've actually been re-purposed from a Glimmerglass Death in Venice - although they're hardly Venetian; they may actually work better for Giovanni). So it's clear that this time BLO has instead invested in pulling together the best vocalists it could find.

Of course it had to. Don Giovanni is famous for its multiple vocal lines - the close of the first act, for example, develops into a stunning sextet - which are not only ravishing but serve a powerful intellectual purpose: that sextet, for example, not only displays six different characterizations, but simultaneously limns six different, and conflicting, moral philosophies. It's at moments like this that Mozart, perhaps alone among opera composers, reaches, and perhaps in a way surpasses, the complexity and depth of Shakespeare (and yes, that's counting the composers who actually adapted Shakespeare). When these ensembles are sung as beautifully as they are here, they cast a mysteriously sublime spell; time stands still, or perhaps we stand transfixed before them. At any rate you feel that you could go on listening to their brilliant braid of grace and sympathy forever.

And you could listen to each of these singers individually for almost as long. Star Christopher Schaldenbrand (at left, with Kimwana Doner) has made a small career of the title role, and it's obvious why; for once, Mozart's bad-boy hunk is actually a blonde, bona-fide hunk, and he sounds as good as he looks (with his shirt on or off): the baritone of this "barihunk" has a rich, redolent flexibility, and Schaldenbrand deploys it with a consummately knowing precision. But while his vocal performance was always commanding, his acting performance grew somewhat frustrating; perhaps he's performed this role too often, for various "Don Giovannis" seemed to inhabit him at different times: by turns we saw a vain party boy, a manic obsessive-compulsive, and a cool-headed cynic. These are all in the role, of course, but they must somehow be integrated into an overall arc, not played one at a time like so many cards. And indeed, when it came time for the Don to face his fate and defy it - the moment that has led many intellectuals to view him as a kind of tragic anti-hero - Schaldenbrand decided to crack up rather than pull himself together in a final act of amoral will.

Then again, perhaps these dramatic gaps were more glaring because the rest of the ensemble was so persuasive in its acting as well as its singing. Matthew Burns brought both a resonant bass-baritone and a skillfully low-key comic spin to the role of Leporello, the Don's unhappy major domo, and delivered a sympathetic mix of rue and wit in the famous catalogue of his master's conquests (here played out via dozens upon dozens of "little black books"). Soprano Heather Johnson likewise made a glowingly sensual Zerlina, who slowly learned how to handle the jealous trigger of her hot-headed husband, Masetto (the fresh-faced Joseph Valone; both at right). As the avenging Donna Elvira, Kimwana Doner perhaps didn't quite have as much outraged hauteur as I would have liked, but somehow her cleanly poignant soprano made her deeper love for the Don actually convincing. With Matthew Plenk's Don Ottavio, there was a closer match in presence than acting technique - but his vocal chops were astounding; his light, high tenor at first didn't even hint at the clarion power which Plenk unleashed to stunning effect in "Il mio tesoro." Last but not least - indeed, perhaps first among equals - was the Donna Anna of Susanna Phillips (below left). The soprano has sung this role before (indeed, against Schaldenbrand), and one hopes she makes it a staple of her career. In dramatic terms, Phillips has just the right emotional radiance for the wounded Donna Anna, but there is also a bloom to her voice that would be ravishingly expressive in any role. On a stage crammed with talent, she nevertheless stole the show, although she still blended beautifully into those exquisite ensembles, which were directed with superb control by conductor Anthony Barrese.

Given all these vocal and dramatic riches, the occasional flaws in the staging where easily forgivable - yet they were still there. The "updating" to 1950's Italy - or perhaps even Sicily - actually worked perfectly well, in that the piece's sexual politics still made sense; and the production opened with the kind of enchanting stage gambit that BLO is becoming known for (a shimmering snowfall, which returned to ironic effect in the final scene - in this Don Giovanni, Hell was a deep freeze). The set, though simple, had an austere grandeur about it, and was lit ingeniously by Robert Wierzel. And director Tazewell Thompson managed well the unique balance between the comic and the tragic that suffuses the opera, and has tripped up many a production. His technique for dealing with those long sextets and quartets, however, was a kind of abstracted movement style that was sometimes quite successful, but at other times stiffened into long tableaux. And alas, he opted to have the ghost of the murdered Commendatore appear to dine with Don Giovanni (then drag him to his doom), rather than his statue, as originally scripted. And perhaps more irritatingly, bass Ulysses Thomas was amplified in the role, when he didn't need to be. Still, while these missteps were sometimes distracting, the production was always able to overcome them.

But BLO still faces an obstacle it may never overcome: Globe critic Jeremy Eichler. Reading his condescending, good-but-not-great review, I'm in disbelief and somewhat irritated, both for the BLO and the potential patrons who might miss this production. It is, of course, simply assumed these days that Eichler's "in the tank," as they say, for the BSO and Opera Boston. But has Eichler by now actually drowned in said tank? Can't he ever come up for air? (Of course he knows well enough not to actually pan the competition; instead he damns it with faint praise. That doesn't make his M.O. any less dishonest.) Boston Lyric Opera, it's true, operates outside Boston's inner circles, and it's hardly hip; it's suburban, and markets its operas in an admittedly middle-brow manner. That doesn't mean its achievements aren't real, or should be given mere lip service. I often feel that I'm in the same position with BLO that I was five years ago, when I first began raving about Boston Ballet. It's different now, I kept saying, they're great. But the powers-that-be hadn't woken up yet, and my friends would simply nod their heads indulgently, with that look of "Oh, Tom, you always get so carried away!" Of course now everybody agrees with me about the Ballet; they seem to have forgotten it took years to convince them. And five years from now, everyone (except Eichler) will probably agree with me about BLO. Actually, once his overlords at the Globe are gone, he may agree with me, too.


  1. I thought the DG was quite uneven. The ending with the amplification was just silly.

  2. You found it "uneven"? Compared to what? I've only seen Don Giovanni three times previously, but this was certainly by far the best of those four, and it was certainly sung more strongly than the Peter Sellars Mozart "updates" of two decades ago. I'd be curious as to where you've heard a stronger ensemble - I certainly haven't heard one to match this in Boston in oh, the last five years, despite consistent concert and opera going. And I have to say it left everything I've heard at Opera Boston in the dust. You could claim that many of the BSO opera stagings equaled it, or maybe surpassed it, in terms of individual bravura turns, but nothing I've heard at the BSO surpassed it in terms of musical feeling and coherence. (Indeed, a sense of balance is what usually eludes the concert stagings at the BSO, which play like four or five individual concerts running simultaneously.) I agree with you that the Commendatore should not have been amplified; hopefully that misstep will be rectified.

  3. the don giovanni (the character, not the whole opera) is a little different, but i didn't quite realize it until i saw this performance a second time. at the final dress rehearsal, i was absolutely blown away with everything the BLO threw at me. fantastic lighting on the sets, terrific acting, and excellent singing. when i saw it again a week later, i noticed that something felt a bit off. nothing major, for sure, and this is still the best don giovanni i've ever seen... except for the amplified commendatore. ugh. i was telling someone during intermission that in opera, the voices are never amplified. a little while later, out comes the mic and even effects! lol. i thought the donna elvira was a fine singer but perhaps not the best actor.

    also, i think ida was referring to the actor playing don giovanni as being uneven, not the whole performance. but again, he was still the best don giovanni i've seen - just different. great facial expressions and excellent stage presence and movement.

    all i know is that this performance had the most profound impact on me of any opera i've been to in the last 3-4 years. hell, i'm still looking up reviews, etc. weeks later! and it prompted me to listen again to my complete mozart edition. life is good when all you hear is mozart!

    i really enjoyed your review - do you mind if i link and copy it to my opera meetup group's webpage?

  4. I don't mind at all if you copy or link to the review. Thanks for your comment. I'm still thinking about that production, too. It was exquisitely beautiful.