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‘Don Giovanni’ at Washington National Opera by Amanda Gunther

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Considered to be one of the greatest operas ever composed, Don Giovanni makes its revival appearance as the second offering of The Washington National Opera’s 2012/2013 season. Housed at The John F. Kennedy Center for Performing Arts, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s brilliant orchestrations transforms the tale of the legendary scoundrel Don Juan into a comically light-hearted yet deadly serious musical masterpiece. Don Giovanni delves into the depths of reckless excess and mortal immorality as he continues his conquest of unquenchable lust, seducing more than 2,000 women in his wake. But a man can only go about in this manner for so long before the women he has scorned and discarded turn to drastic measures to seek revenge.

(l-r) Ildar Abdrazakov (Don Giovanni) and Soloman Howard (The Commendatore). Photo by Scott Suchman.

Mozart’s score is delivered to superior justice with Conductor Philippe Auguin at the head of the WNO Orchestra. With a subtle hand he guides the pace and tempo of the score, racing it along to exhilarate emotions without ever giving the feeling of rushing the beat. Auguin inspires moments of sheer emotional brilliance when the orchestra swells to crescendos matching the singers upon the stage, particularly in Act II when repentance comes for Don Giovanni and he is faced with the ultimate decision, given by a talking statue. He coaxes trembling moments of excitement and anticipation from the very bows of each string in the pit during tense moments upon the stage, easing them back to allow the singers to truly shine in their more stellar moments. Auguin gives us a mastery of Mozart’s finest composition and brings tears to the eyes of the audience in the overture alone.

Lighting Designer Donald Edmund Thomas working in conjunction with Director and Set Designer John Pascoe manage to stage a world of fantasy in which this opera unfolds. The opening scene played out behind a sheer dark scrim is truly haunting with cues of lightning timed to perfection with the strike of the timpani and horn from the pit, bathing the title character in an eerie shroud of mist. The waifish wraiths that swirl and unfurl around him against the striking background of a derelict cemetery make a stunning impression as the audience’s first vision. Pascoe continues his brilliance with the resurrection of this ghastly cemetery late in Act II; a place where the Don and his servant seek to hide, only to be met by true terrorizing chaos.

As a story told primarily through the emotions of the singers this performance leaves nothing lacking. The understanding of what unfolds, even to those unfamiliar with the story, is sharp and presented with an intense clarity. The eight principle performers become so engaged and engrossed in the emotions of their arias, serenades, and laments that for moments you almost forget they are singing in Italian; the raw emotion of their passions flowing through that readily.

While Don Giovanni may be the larger than life focus of the opera the three women that impact his life become key elements to this production as the plot unwinds. Donna Anna (Megan Miller) corners the market on woeful arias. Bereft by the death of her father Miller’s grief is profound in the purest form, reverberating through a myriad of soprano glissandos, particularly when pleading with Don Ottavio (Juan Francisco Gatell) to avenge her father in the aria “Or sai chi l’onore.” Her posture falls sick with mourning as she laments his death and the tragedy it causes her love life. Gatell plays an equally stunning aria with Dalla sua pace, wherein he vows a sharp and angry vengeance. The flighty chemistry between the pair is reconciled well with the simple shifts in their harmonies during choral numbers later in the performance.

Counterbalancing this woebegone couple are the fun and fancy free soon to be newlyweds Zerlina (Veronica Cangemi) and Masetto (Aleksey Bogdanov). Cangemi provides the fluttering voice of a songbird; a true ingénue wrapped in the nuances of young love. A duet with The Don provides us with a taste of her rich soprano sound while her body trembles in both terror and ecstasy at his sheer touch. Boganov ends up expressing the impetuous urges of jealousy and is nothing short of emotionally amusing when chastising his beloved for her wild and flirtatious manner.

Set apart from both Donna Anna and Zerlina is the scorned lover Donna Elvira (Barbara Frittoli). Never faltering in her unwavering confliction of emotions for the Don, Frittoli provides a remarkable portrayal of this deeply confused woman. Her shining moment, though her entire performance is exquisite, comes in Act II during her deeply emotional aria “Mi tradi, quell’alma ingrata,” where her heart and soul pour out from her lips in rich trembling tones that strike a chord in the soul and brings the audience to tearful applause as she confesses her love and betrayal, her confusion and devotion to The Don.

The romping scoundrel’s servant, Leporello (Andrew Foster-Williams) is a delightful baritone who adds the much needed moments of comic relief in this otherwise dark and rather grim opera. Foster-Williams jaunts through an entire song that explains the countless conquests of The Don to the scorned Donna Elvira, “Madamina, il catalogo è questo,” that gives us a moment of true comic genius on his behalf. He provides subtle humors in darker moments and is a rivaling match for The Don’s delicious bass sound.

Don Giovanni (Ildar Abdrazakov) is a singing sensation that moves the audience to give him compassion when his character deserves none. Abdrazakov drives the rotten rake to new heights of devilish conquest with his careless regard of the emotional state of the women he leaves behind. His arrogance transcends even the most serious of situations and he exudes sexuality with every desperate word. Singing powerful arias that boast a voice second to none in this production Abdrazakov does not disappoint as the title character. His arias are pointed to perfection each one more stirring and incredible than the last until it builds to the characters ultimately grizzly conclusion.

And keep your ears on Soloman Howard, a bass featured briefly at the beginning of the performance and the end; his rich basement sound will leave you trembling for more.

(l-r) Ildar Abdrazakov (Don Giovanni) and Barbara Frittoli (Donna Elvira). Photo by Scott Suchman.

Running Time: Three hours and 30 minutes, with one 20 minute intermission.

Don Giovanni is presented in Italian with English supertitles and plays select performances in The Kennedy Center Opera House from September 20 to October 13, 2012. The John F. Kennedy Center for Performing Arts is located in the heart of Washington DC at 2700 F Street, NW. Tickets for the performance can be purchased by calling the box office at (202) 467-4600, or can be purchased online.

In addition to playing on the stage of The Opera House, the Saturday September 29th performance will be simulcast free to thousands of fans at Nationals Park as part of M&M’s Opera In The Outfield.

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