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Rising stars shine in ‘Don Giovanni’

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By Alicia Solomon

Following another spectacular sunset, a new production of Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” opened at the Santa Fe Opera last Saturday night, 222 years after its Prague premier.  A young cast of mostly fresh faces (five of the eight roles were SFO debuts, and three were former apprentices) took on this challenging classic, with varying amounts of success.

The ladies shone most brightly, with South African soprano Elza van den Heever delivering Donna Anna’s largeness of voice, emotion and beauty. After an initial red nightgown (va voom!), she was garbed in mourning black, with white lace or red detailing on the corseted bodice or enormous hoop skirt.  

Santa Fe favorite Mozartean Susanna Phillips, who apprenticed in 2004 and has graced us with Pamina (“Magic Flute”) Fiordiligi (“Cosi Fan Tutte”) and the Countess (“Marriage of Figaro”) over the last three summers, was an engaging and mercurial Donna Elvira. She was vivid in neon pink (again?) satin with red gloves, and an amazing hat in the first act that was an absolute work of art.  Near midnight, she may have betrayed a little fatigue vocally, but also shows great promise of growing quickly into mastery of the part.

Peasant bride Zerlina was unusually cast in mezzo Kate Lindsey, an apprentice in 2003.  I liked her full, dark voice in the role, which current tradition normally gives to the lightest of the three sopranos.  However, her hair in a loose, high bun made her look oddly old; and her hand-worked ivory blouse and skirt seemed anachronistically early 20th century amid the corseted and hooped Donnas.

Surprisingly, tenor Charles Workman as the ineffectually faithful Don Ottavio was the brightest star of the men, with a clear, ringing tone and passionate sincerity.  I also enjoyed Harold Wilson’s Commendatore, a more satisfying display of his cavernous basso than his debut as Dr. Grenville in “Traviata.”

Baritone Lucas Meachem as Giovanni himself, while often vocally beautiful, and dashing in a calf-length, full skirted black leather coat, was just not confident enough for me.  There were glimpses of arrogance, along with boredom but not the calm certainty that he would get the girl, and his own way, as he always had. Probably Meachem, too, will grow into the part, gaining confidence with experience.  

Englishman Matthew Rose’s characterization of clever Leporello was too buffoonish, (which could be direction) and his voice too covered to shine, or even be heard sometimes.  Indeed, while for “Traviata” Maestro Chaslin made his Verdi orchestra sound positively Mozartean in its delicate grace, the ensemble under Dutch conductor Lawrence Renes pounded away with almost Verdian bombast.  After three hours, I and many other audience members had had enough.  

The set consisted of dark red storefront facades, liberally sprinkled with doors and warehouse-style windows, suggesting perhaps 19th century streetscapes.  

The walls separated and rotated into various positions for the different scenes, which made the changes smooth and interesting, but the monochromic stage soon became monotonous.  Giovanni’s final leap into the Hell of an over-tall wardrobe lit from within was rather awkward and not a bit scary.  

Ultimately, the high points of the evening were ensembles: duets, trios, quartets, and up, beautifully balanced and intertwining as only Mozart can do it; and performed by a cast of rising young singers early in their artistic journey.