WASHINGTON, March 17, 2015 – For a guy who doesn’t much like “updates” to world famous operas—or Shakespeare for that matter—I have to give a big hat tip to Washington’s In Series.
This feisty and long-lived company has consistently “updated” opera after opera in such a way as to keep both the music and form of the original intact while cleverly replacing 100- or 200-year old plots with modern ones that are the same only different.
Case in point: The In Series’ current production of Mozart’s immortal “Don Giovanni” (1787), now being presented (in contemporary English) at the Gala Hispanic Theatre in D.C. It’s another winner for sure, retaining the wit and the charm of the original while inventively transforming the opera’s plot closer to our own times.
Librettist Bari Biern has re-crafted Mozart’s take on this age old story of the world’s greatest lover and scoundrel (“Don Juan” in Spanish) into something resembling a musical that might very well be re-titled “Elmer Gantry Does the Don.”
It’s one of the stranger facts of 20th and 21st century American life that a surprising number of popular Bible-thumping preachers over the years have proved, in private, to be slightly less than righteous, choosing to walk with the Lord only when no one else is looking whilst carrying on with sweet and not-so-sweet young things on the side.
The American prototype here is Sinclair Lewis’ novel “Elmer Gantry,” the story of a hypocritical preacher with a spotted career that created a sensation when it was first published in 1927 and later made into a 1960 film starring Burt Lancaster in the title role.
The In Series and Ms. Biern seem to have seized on this Elmer Gantry moment to re-imagine Mozart’s Don Giovanni as the same kind of itinerant preacher.
Pastor Don G spends his life traveling the tent revival circuit in Roaring Twenties America, passionately preaching the Gospel by day and just as passionately violating the Sixth and Ninth Commandments (for Catholics at least) by night. Seldom has anyone found coveting and adultery so much fun, though the unfortunately-wronged ladies this updated scoundrel leaves behind might beg to disagree.
For all its fame and popularity, Mozart’s original “Don Giovanni” is a peculiar bird of an opera. A good modern term to describe it might be “tragi-comic.”
Clearly, there’s tragedy here, encompassing a nasty murder almost before the opening act gets out the gate; any number of seductions and rapes; and a grand finale in which the devil himself makes an unusual appearance to take temporal matters firmly in hand.
And yet this is a funny opera, too. Giovanni’s manservant and sidekick, Leporello, is loopy and funny as an Everyman whose conscience constantly gets the better of him before his wallet wins out. The good guys are too good to be true, and hence are completely ineffective. And Giovanni himself seems a pleasant enough rogue, despite his consistently rotten behavior when it comes to the opposite sex.
But perhaps this opera’s many paradoxes are what make it interesting. And finally, for the moralists in the crowd, it’s no secret that Don Giovanni eventually gets his comeuppance in the opera’s famous finale.
The In Series captures the essence of Mozart’s original morality tale in its updated edition, deftly trimming this much-longer work into its shorter essence while putting a provocative twist on its famous ending that we won’t give away here.
The result, for the most part, is an evening or afternoon of opera that longtime “Giovanni” fans will enjoy and that opera newbies will find delightful and intriguing, perhaps whetting their appetites for more—which is one of the great virtues of all the In Series’ many “pocket operas” over the years.
Over the last few years, the In Series has been able to hire better and better singers for productions like this one, creating an even greater value-added.
At the top of the list in this production were bass-baritone Andrew Pardini as Don Giovanni and baritone Alex Alburqueque as the hapless Leporello. Mr. Pardini radiated a rough and ready wit through his commanding vocal presence, while as his foil and polar opposite, Mr. Alburqueque’s Leporello, provided the comic antidote with a voice and a manner that adapted to every situation, and with facial expressions that recalled vaudeville—still in vogue in the 1920s—at its best.
Mozart’s much put-upon trio of female characters were nearly as sharp as this production’s pair of male scoundrels. Soprano Randa Rouweyha sang the role of the vengeful “Sister Anna” crisply and with substantial malice aforethought. Soprano Daniele Lorio was a sympathetic and believable “Sister Elvira,” although at times during Sunday’s performance her delivery seemed slightly strained. And soprano Laura Wehremeyer Fuentes’ Zerlina was as sprightly and saucy as she could be, nearly stealing every scene in which she appeared.
Back to the male side of the aisle, tenor Aaron Halevy gave a smashing performance in the role of Ottavio, “Sister Anna’s” arms-length fiancé. Mozart gave this poor fellow a rather second-string role, and in many productions he comes off more than a bit wimpy. But Mr. Halevy was somehow able to imbue this part with a quiet dignity. And better yet, his rare but important solo moments were wonderfully articulate and emotional. What a pleasant surprise in this often ungrateful role.
In the smaller, broadly comic role of Zerlina’s on-again, off-again fiancé Masetto, bass-baritone Sean Pflueger was a comic delight possessed, however, of a firm and convincing voice that made you take him more seriously than his country bumpkin of a character.
As “Pastor Jebediah,” this version’s answer to Mozart’s Commendatore, bass David Brundage was not only able to give his character presence in his short opening scene. He proved even more effective late in the opera during his ominous, ghostly reappearance as an instrument of vengeance, adding a surprising frisson of doom to this otherwise light and lively production.
In their brief but welcome appearances, the opera chorus was outstanding, and all the ensemble numbers seemed tight and well-rehearsed. Stage direction by Tom Mallan was deft and inventive if at times a bit busy.
Adding a piano to this production’s reduced orchestra of five string players gives the musical accompaniment just the right amount of heft. The performance of the musicians was generally quite excellent indeed under the direction of music director and conductor Stanley Thurston who was also able to keep his singers in tempo saves for one perilous page or two about two-thirds of the way through the production where the singers slightly lost their way.
On the whole, however, this is a delightful production, slightly abridged to a digestible length for those not thoroughly familiar with the opera but still retaining the heart of Mozart’s music and story even in its creative American update.
The only criticism we have of this production is that Ms. Biern’s clever English language lyrics were often difficult to discern in the audience, particularly in the rapid patter songs.
The latter can be a problem even in the Italian language original (for those at least who understand Italian). But still, it seems a shame to miss what were almost certainly some delightful comic bits, even though veteran opera goers probably don’t need the hints. A bit more attention to diction, whenever possible, might be of help here.
We’ve noted, even in much larger productions of many operas sung in English, that subtitles or surtitles can be genuinely helpful in this regard as well, and would suggest this addition in the future for English-language In Series productions, time and budget permitting.
Rating: ** ½ (Two and one-half stars out of four)
Running Time: 2 hours and 30 minutes, including a 15-minute intermission.
The In Series’ English language tent revival production of Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” continues at the Gala Hispanic Theatre through Monday, March 23.
Tickets and information: Tickets range from $45 (general admission) to $42 (seniors) and $22 (students). Call the box office at 202-204-7763. Or visit the In Series’ “Don Giovanni” page online at: http://www.inseries.org/Mozarts_DON_GIOVANNI.html