Review: IU opera delivers top-notch rendition of ‘Don Giovanni’

An imposing new set, strong singing, first-rate musical production and stage direction that bring a sense of order and grandeur are positive aspects of the Indiana University Opera Theater’s current staging of Mozart’s “Don Giovanni.”

Generous applause following the opera’s numerous arias and at opera’s end, along with comments overheard and comments directly addressed to me, would suggest that, by general agreement, this newly introduced staging has merit.

My plan in reviewing had been to sit through the first weekend’s performances, evaluate what I had heard and seen from both casts and report on my reaction. That has been the usual approach at The Herald-Times for a long while. As the week passed, however, a trip to the hospital that lasted one day longer than I thought it would made attendance on opening night not possible. So, this review offers my response to Saturday’s performance only. My new game plan is to see the cast I missed next weekend and then report once more to you.

Actually, I did witness one portrayal that all viewers of this production did or will see. It is that of the Commendatore, he who is murdered in the opening scene and then, at the end, returns in retribution to have Don Giovanni meet his Maker. The newly hired associate professor of voice in the IU Jacobs School of Music’s voice department, Peter Volpe, took on all four performances of that role, thereby returning to a casting policy of the school’s past: to mix student and faculty voices in the company’s productions. Volpe is a natural for the part, not only for the robust nature of his bass voice but for his physical stature. Volpe’s was a most successful debut as performing teacher; he has plenty of his vocal powers still to draw upon.

But before we continue along the praiseworthy musical path, let’s comment further on the environment in which this production unfolds, in that it will be around for a while. It is the work of Bloomington-based set designer Mark Frederic Smith, who studied at the Jacobs School under C. David Higgins and Robert O. Hearn and created set designs locally for IU Opera Theater, IU Theater and Cardinal Stage. He has a keen sense for beauty and appropriateness.

For this “Giovanni,” he has constructed a basic set that evokes the past but is also timeless. It is a single unit but, through the addition of slide-on panels and drop-down backdrops, makes scene changes easily and quickly possible, a plus for any performance of “Don Giovanni.” In a comfortable instant, the stage picture shifts and the action flows on, a neat trick comfortably delivered. Dana Tzvetkov’s costumes are handsome and very much in concert with the physical aspects of the production. So is the lighting of the always-dependable Patrick Mero.

In the use of that stage, visiting stage director David Lefkowich showed the way for Saturday’s cast to fill it. Every suitable movement has been called upon to prevent a stand-there-and-just-sing situation; movement contributed a sense of theater to the unfolding drama, all to the good when not overdone, which it wasn’t.

Arthur Fagen, veteran IU faculty conductor who also serves as music director of the Atlanta Opera, was very much the man in-charge on the podium, doing his critical job of paying homage to Mozart’s brilliant score. The IU Concert Orchestra played beautifully for him. A small chorus served well, and during the performance, had the benefit of Maestro Fagen’s baton.

Vocally, in addition to the Commendatore, the opera calls for seven top-notch singers. Casting deserves praise.

Bruno Sandes, a second-year master student with considerable professional experience, gave his portrayal of Giovanni the needed libido-driven, self-centered and malevolent personality that make a viewer shudder. His voice, a lyric and flexible baritone, did justice to Mozart’s score as an instrument easy to listen to while conveying the devil-may-care character of Giovanni.

Soprano Kaitlyn Johnson, a doctoral student also with a list of accomplishments, brought a powerful and dramatic soprano to the role of Donna Anna, the woman first debased in the course of the opera’s story. She produced sorrow and anger with her voice, just right for a woman avenging her father’s murder.

Donna Elvira, another woman who Giovanni draws into his scheming, was in the capable presence and voice of soprano Shayna Jones. Her servant Zerlina’s character benefited from its portrayal by Alissa Dessoye, she of a sweet lyric/coloratura vocal instrument.

Giovanni’s servant Leporello, as played by bass-baritone Glen Hall, had the needed bounce, anger and comic thrust.

Completing Saturday’s cast were two undergraduates who held their own: As Donna Anna’s beau Don Ottavio, tenor Leo Williams displayed a beautifully trained and controlled voice that more than hints at a promising future. And as Masetto, Zerlina’s husband-to-be, baritone Joey LaPlant revealed an affinity for delving into his role.

By Peter Jacobi H-T Reviewer © HTO 2017

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