Skip to main content

Santa Fe Opera’s ominously fatalistic ‘Don Giovanni’

Written By | Aug 14, 2016

SANTA FE, N.M., August 11, 2016 – We’ve recently wrapped up an invigorating week of new opera productions at the Santa Fe Opera (SFO), finding that the company’s 2016 selections, in the main, are characterized by strong singing, excellent acting, fine orchestral playing and interesting if occasionally quirky sets and costuming.

Case in point: Santa Fe Opera’s production of Mozart’s masterpiece, “Don Giovanni.” Though distinguished by interesting costumes that suggested a much earlier timeframe than our own, the production itself is almost brutally postmodernist. As the audience enters the company’s unusually effective open-air performance space, viewers are immediately struck by the stark drama awaiting them on the curtainless stage.

Surrounded on either side by mirror-like black walls is a monstrous, golden, abstract sculpture that stands out dramatically against the setting-sun backdrop of the surrounding desert hills. The SFO rear stage area can be and often is left open at times to this vast natural expanse to great effect, and this was no exception.

The sculpture, which, initially at least, vaguely represents a Death’s Head also recalls, for the poetically-inclined, the remote, abandoned sculpture of Shelley’s blustery but long-forgotten Ozymandias, “King of Kings.” The poem concludes:

…Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Well might these words apply to Mozart’s Don Giovanni, the composer’s (and librettist Lorenzo da Ponte’s) version of the infamous, promiscuous, notorious Spanish lover Don Juan.

The Commendatore's ghost (Soloman Howard) visits Don Giovanni (Daniel Okulitch) one final time before sealing his fate. (Credit: Ken Howard for SFO)

The Commendatore’s ghost (Soloman Howard) visits Don Giovanni (Daniel Okulitch) one final time before sealing his fate. (Credit: Ken Howard for SFO)

Mozart’s treatment of this most politically incorrect of Don’s is an odd and intriguing mix of humor, brutality and amorality that concludes, however, with a highly moral and Christian finale in which our anti-hero, unrepentant to the last, is pulled down into hell by the vengeful spirit of the Commendatore, the man he killed in the opera’s opening scene.

While Riccardo Hernandez’ setting morphs a bit from time to time as each scene transists to another, it’s that massive, foreboding sculpture that dominates the setting, silently moving forward and back, its appearance constantly altered by the projected scenery of Peter Nigrini to set each scene before its final transformation into that massive Death’s Head skull it always seemed to be.

The sculpture, in fact, ultimately represents Fate and Justice, both of which loom over the Don from that violent yet cavalier opening scene. The whole setting may be a little abstract for many tastes, but it seemed more than consistent with this famous opera’s intended moral and theme.

Operas involve much more than settings, however, and it’s the singing that counts in the end. Fortunately, this “Giovanni” boasted a strong and able cast of singer-actors who fleshed out the abstraction of its strangely effective yet antiseptic setting.

Read also: Santa Fe Opera’s elegant, disturbing ‘Vanessa’

At the top of his game was bass-baritone Daniel Okulitch as the opera’s anti-hero. Rough, tough and without any apparent moral compass at all, Mr. Okulitch’s Don is a swashbuckling man with a mission: to bed any and all females he encounters whether married or not. He’ll threaten violence at the drop of a hat, and it’s only the invulnerable ghost of a murdered man that’s finally able to do him in.

Mr. Okulitch’s athletic portrayal of Giovanni, along with his sharply cutting and authoritative voice made him the perfect, seemingly invulnerable foil to the opera’s remaining characters.

As his sidekick, Leporello, bass-baritone Kyle Ketelsen provided the comic relief. Granted, we’ve seen more cunningly slapstick portrayals of this beloved character in other productions. But Mr. Ketelsen seemed keen to be at his vocal best—which he was, articulating his lines superbly and with great attention to detail in a most admirable performance.

Soprano Keri Alkema was a warm, but at times somewhat tentative Dona Elvira. Her vocal work and ornamentation was lovely. But somehow, at least for us, she was far too easily re-seduced by Giovanni, who’d callously tossed her aside like all the others despite her clearly abiding love for him.

Soprano Leah Crocetto’s vengeful Donna Anna was more punchy and effective vocally, although her widow’s weeds (or actually, daughter’s weeds) made for a rather lugubrious setting on an already dark and ominous stage. Her constantly frustrated fiancé, Don Ottavio, is usually at her side vowing to help her avenge her father, the Commendatore’s death. Though Ottavio is far from Mozart’s most convincing character, tenor Edgaras Montvidas gave him as good a go as we’ve heard in quite some time which gave this production a lift when it was needed.

Sprightly country maid and bride-to-be Zerlina (Rhian Lois, center) could be the next entry in Don Giovanni's little black book. (Credit: Ken Howard for SFO)

Sprightly country maid and bride-to-be Zerlina (Rhian Lois, center) could be the next entry in Don Giovanni’s little black book. (Credit: Ken Howard for SFO)

In addition to Mr. Ketelsen’s Leporello, the rustic odd couple Zerlina (Rhian Lois) and Masetto (Jarrett Ott) also brightened the set with their appearances. Ms. Lois was reliably light and chirpy as the bride-to-be who, like “Oklahoma’s” Ado Annie, is a girl who just can’t say no, while young baritone Jarrett Ott—plucked out of SFO’s apprentice singer ensemble—was delightfully sullen yet alert, playing and singing his bumpkin character as a rube, yes, but one who’s more insightful and cunning than he looks.

Finally, it was a delight to see one of our favorite Washington National Opera Domingo-Cafritz Artists, bass Soloman Howard, in the small yet key role of the Commendatore, Donna Anna’s loyal but aging father. He’s terminated by Giovanni in that opening scene but, as a relentlessly powerful returning spirit, gets his revenge on the wayward Don in the opera’s hellish penultimate scene. Mr. Howard’s imposing physique, matched by his equally imposing voice of remarkable clarity, is a figure that operagoers will be seeing a lot more of in the years and decades ahead.

A special surprise on the evening we attended this production: It seemed as if God himself had signed on to the company’s backstage crew, as He sent a tremendous thunderclap blasting through SFO’s outdoor venue just prior to our anti-hero’s descent into the everlasting fires of Hell. A great, if entirely unexpected special effect. Bravissimo!

Direction of this production by Ron Daniels was a bit prosaic, but he consistently managed to position his singers front and center, generally a big plus in our book. Accompanying the ensemble of singers, the SFO orchestra contributed positively though not spectacularly with its workmanlike approach to Mozart’s richly inventive score under the baton of John Nelson.

Rating: ** ½ (Two and one-half out of four stars)

Tickets and information: Season (5 opera) packages may still be available. Single ticket prices for each opera this season range from $32-$225. All operas this month begin at 8 p.m., and the 2016 season concludes on August 26, 2016. For more complete information including directions, individual performance dates and tickets, visit the Santa Fe Opera site here, or call the Box Office Monday through Saturday (in season) between 9 and five Mountain Daylight Time at 505-986-5900 (local) or 800-280-4654.

Additional notes: If you haven’t attended the opera here before, watch the skies, bring an umbrella when appropriate and, for the ladies in particular, include an extra wrap. Santa Fe and environs may be in the desert, but it can cool off considerably in the evening. As it’s “monsoon season” in the American southwest, the weather can also get surprisingly stormy in late afternoons and early evenings.

Terry Ponick

Biographical Note: Dateline Award-winning music and theater critic for The Connection Newspapers and the Reston-Fairfax Times, Terry was the music critic for the Washington Times print edition (1994-2010) and online Communities (2010-2014). Since 2014, he has been the Senior Business and Entertainment Editor for Communities Digital News (CDN). A former stockbroker and a writer and editor with many interests, he served as editor under contract from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and continues to write on science and business topics. He is a graduate of Georgetown University (BA, MA) and the University of South Carolina where he was awarded a Ph.D. in English and American Literature and co-founded one of the earliest Writing Labs in the country. Twitter: @terryp17