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Don Giovanni, now at Seattle Opera

Must be autumn; one season closes (ACT) and another one begins. The one beginning is Seattle Opera, which presents Mozart’s Don Giovanni, and, if this production is any indication, it’s the start of a worthwhile tribute to Speight Jenkins’ legacy.

Jenkins has already retired and this is the first production under the directorship of Aiden Lang–sort of. Lang certainly oversaw the quotidian details of this show, but the entire production had already been assembled by the time Lang took over. He won’t have a chance to really strut his stuff, so to speak, until the 2015-16 season. Still, the production values were quite high and showed the same levels of imagination and high quality which became Jenkins’ trademark. That marks a good start. And it runs from October 18 until November 1.

In order to really evaluate an opera, one really should see the show twice, ideally with each cast. This was not possible so Handsome Half and I had to content ourselves with one viewing. But that one performance was impressive. A major standout was Robert Dahlstrom’s abstract set. It consisted of three tiers of post-modern-ish blocks which opened and closed as the story dictated. The stage itself was pretty bare of props (perhaps a concession to lean economic times) but that is in no way a criticism. In fact, we were impressed by the economy of the stage, and the fluidity of the set design itself proved to be so versatile for such a complex plot. And Seattle Opera has certainly mastered its state-of-the-art computerized lighting system. All parts meshed seamlessly as is seen in the finale, when Don Giovanni descends into Hell, surrounded by fire and smoke. A riveting scene, and one which will rank as one of the unforgettable scenes of this season.

My only issue was in the way this opera was updated. The intention was to modernize the main characters, while keeping  the rest of the cast in more period clothes. They even went so far as to give Don Giovanni a motorcycle at the beginning of the opera, upon which he roared off-stage. A bit jarring, yes, but I got it. But that was the only time such a device was used. I’m not totally opposed to updating stories to keep their relevance (although I often miss the stunning costumes of period pieces) as long as it’s done well. For that reason, they should have used the motorcycle more than once. That might have brought laughter from the audience, but Mozart inserted a lot of humor into his score anyway. The entire piece is actually more of a comedy-drama.

The performances are also uniformly outstanding. While we both enjoy opera, Handsome Half and I have not yet hatched the ears for the fine discernment of singing voices, so all the singers in this production sounded great.

As with all great composers, Mozart loaded this opera with great vocal showpieces, and none of the performers fumbled. They all delivered jaw-dropping performances and earned all the ovations the audience gave them. On the night we saw it, the cast featured: Nicolas Cavallier as Don Giovanni; Erik Anstine as his long-suffering servant, Leporello; Elizabeth Caballero as the spurned Donna Elvira; Erin Wall as Donna Anna with Jordan Bisch as her father, The Commendatore. Audience favorite Lawrence Brownlee sang her fiance, Don Ottavio; and Cecelia Hall and Evan Boyer (in his Seattle Opera debut) sang the parts of the young lovers, Zerlina and Masetto.

Conductor Gary Thor Wedow conducted the orchestra, and did so quite masterfully as, at one place, three bands played simultaneously. It’s raucous and wild but, thanks to Wedow, never chaotic. Seattle-based Wade Madsen choreographed the dance numbers.

What struck me most about this opera is the strength of the women characters. They’re driven by revenge, of course, but most are strong willed and very independent. When the ineffectual Don Ottavio, in the final scene, wants to marry Donna Anna, her response is…maybe. Only Zerlina seems helpless, but she’s younger, less confident and from a lower class and, hence, has less options. But none of them are destroyed, something not even Tosca, Carmen nor Lucia de Lammermoor can claim.

The opera debuted on October 29, 1787, but it doesn’t feel 227 years old; it seems just as fresh and timely as Mad Men, or the Seattle Times’ recent stories of the serial molester prowling Seattle. But  don’t take my word for it. See it for yourself.

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