Mozart is said to be especially good for younger singers and I myself have heard more than one teacher cite his music as a great teaching tool. A few of Mozart’s operas, such as Die Zauberflöte and Le Nozze di Figaro are even commonly produced by universities. Considering that, one might assume there’s nothing unusual about Catholic University’s choice to stage a full production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni as their spring opera. However, of all Mozart’s commonly produced operas, I would make the argument that Don Giovanni is the most difficult work for a primarily undergraduate university vocal program. Don Giovanni is incredibly long, clocking in just over three hours, full of stylized recitative that many young singers lack experience singing, and the subject matter bops between comedic and dramatic at the drop of a hat. Catholic’s production, staged in a traditional production by John De Los Santos and primarily conducted by Daniele Tirilli, is all the more impressive for those reasons.
In general, casting an opera out of a university voice program can be like trying to force mismatched puzzle pieces together. In a program like Catholic’s the casting pool includes skill levels ranging from freshmen who aren’t even majoring in voice, to doctoral candidates who may already have the trappings of a professional career. Don Giovanni presents a special set of casting challenges. because of the wide range of difficulty between roles. To its credit, the opera has an abundance of great female roles and CUA’s voice department has plenty of excellent female singers. More challenging however, is the ability to find men to fill the fewer, more specialized male voices in Don Giovanni so I was particularly impressed upon hearing the men. As the title role, Kevin Johnson delivers a Met quality performance that includes a warmly seductive rendition of “Deh vieni alla finestra.” Also of note are Dan Noone (Don Ottavio), Matt Woorman (Leporello), and Joseph Chee as the Commendatore. No one possesses a larger, more robust voice than usually cast in the role that lends his character a distinctly masculine quality. Given the weight of his voice, Noone’s ability to handle the coloratura in Ottavio’s second aria, “Il mio tesoro” crisply and succinctly is extraordinary. Woorman is an affable Leporello with a warm baritone to match and Joseph Chee is an indomitably stoic Commendatore with a stunning and warmly resonant bass.
The production is however, double cast. I was lucky enough to see both Thursday and Friday evenings, but the two casts present what are essentially two very different interpretations of the same opera. For example, Eric Gramatges’ Don Giovanni in the Thursday/Saturday cast presents a completely different villain than Johnson. Gramatges approaches the role with wanton skeeviness usually only possessed by frat boys at Big 10 universities. Also in the Thursday/Saturday cast is Rafaelito Ross who presents a plaintive, more lyric Don Ottavio.
The female roles are exceptionally well sung in both casts, but a special mention goes to the dramatic abilities of Emily Casey as a stalwart pistol toting Donna Elvira and Chun-Ting Chao as a frenzied and overwrought Donna Anna. On either night, Zerlina and Masetto are charmingly played by Yeji Yoon and Terrence Britt or Catherine Wethington, and Alex Ruhling.
The set, designed by Director John De Los Santos, consists of two enormous moving staircases and three platforms matching the height of the stairs which are moved throughout the production to create different spaces. Within the context of the plot, the set is extremely effective in differentiating each scene and is a wonderful idea in theory. However, they make for long and unwieldy scene changes and they don’t seem to be entirely stable. For example, any time the side of the stairs pushed up to the platform is visible to the audience, it is extremely evident that the stairs aren’t clamped to the platform- which isn’t wholly surprising since the stairs were moved between almost every scene. That said, I found watching the stairs slowing edge away from the platform as a singer climbed up them enormously distracting and dangerous. I was unfortunately so much more concerned with whether or not I was about to watch Leporello fall than what he was saying in his recitative.
The scene changes are also facilitated by the opera chorus and while they do their best, they halt the energy of the show quite a bit. It’s like stopping the show for five minutes between each scene to watch beautiful flower maidens play Tetris with light harpsichord underscoring. If that length of time is going to be taken to change the scene anyways, it would really be prudent to take an extra minute to clamp the stairs and ensure the safety of the singers.
The orchestra is helmed formidably by Guest Conductor Daniele Tirilli most nights – although the first night of the run notably marked the debut of Tirilli’s assistant, Nathan Blair. Blair, a twenty year-old collaborative pianist conducted Thursday’s performance with great aplomb, displaying an incredible gift for communicating with singers. Other notable guests in the pit are the incomparable Dr. Nicholas Catravas providing continuo on harpsichord and Marbelly Davila providing a lithe mandolin accompaniment to “Deh vieni alla finestra.”
Catholic University’s Don Giovanni is a musically satisfying production and the presentation of such a mature opera is a testament to the willpower and drive of the students at Catholic.
Running Time: Approximately three hours, with one fifteen-minute intermission.
Don Giovanni has two more performances-tonight at 7:30 PM and tomorrow at 2 PM at the Hartke Theatre at the Catholic University of America – 620 Michigan Avenue, NE, in Washington DC. Tickets are available online or at the door.