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'Don Giovanni,' Mozart's bad boy, kicks off Opera Theatre's season

This article first appeared in a St. Louis Beacon, May 19, 2011 - Lights go up on Mozart's "Don Giovanni" Saturday night at the opening of Opera Theatre of St. Louis' 36th season. Mozart specialist Jane Glover (author of "Mozart's Women") returns to conduct and add her special insights into what is often called the perfect opera.

In an unusual move, two men -- OTSL artistic director James Robinson and Michael Shell -- are co-directing.

"'Don Giovanni' is very hard and needs as many directors as you can get," Robinson said to his cast at the production's concept presentation meeting last month. He called the opera Mozart's "most abstract and most psychological with so many people lying."

At its core, "Don Giovanni" is a simple story. A dashing, powerful man promises to marry a woman, then seduces her and flees. Of course, Mozart and Da Ponte never settled for basics. Giovanni seduces and flees from 2,065 women -- young and old; single, married and widowed; peasant and noble; ugly and beautiful.

Giovanni's servant Leporello stands guard during his master's dangerous liaisons protecting him from outraged husbands and fathers. He also sings the opera's famous "catalog" aria listing his master's conquests: "In Italy 640, in Germany 239, 100 in France, 91 in Turkey, but in Spain already 1,003...His supreme passion is for the young beginner."

Early in the opera, one father, the Commendatore, walks in on the seduction of his beloved daughter, Donna Anna. Don Giovanni kills him.

Mozart called this a comic opera so there is plenty to distract: a masked ball, costume switching and a peasant wedding. Shadows fall in the second act when the Commendatore's cemetery statue greets Giovanni.

Mozart wrote the opera's overture in D Minor, the same key as his unfinished Requiem Mass. Adding to the rich dark color is the unusual use of three bass voices: Leporello, the Commendatore and Masetto. All are men to whom Giovanni is cruel.

"All three sound differently," said Amy Kaiser, St. Louis Symphony chorus master who gave four popular classes in April on the 2011 OTSL operas.

Giovanni, a baritone, has just one aria. Mostly he hides his motives in sung dialogue-recitative.

Elliot Madore, who once sang in the OTSL chorus as a Gerdine Young Artist, takes center stage as Giovanni.

Often the role is given to an older singer. However, baritone Luigi Bassi who sang Giovanni in its world premiere in Prague was 21 years old, O'Leary said.

"Elliot turned 24 this April," O'Leary said in a triumphal voice.

Maria Kanyova, who sang Susanna in "Marriage of Figaro" last season and Marie Antoinette in the 2009 "Ghosts of Versailles," reprises the role of Donna Anna she sang at LA Opera. Kanyova is a longtime St. Louis favorite and not just because she's a member of the Kirkwood High Class of 1984 when she was Mary Jane Posegate.

After perfecting the opera seria style of his era, Mozart began working with Da Ponte. Together they revolutionized opera.

"It was an absolute partnership of two geniuses," conductor Glover said. "Together they made things happen, increased the ingenuity and veracity of their work."

With Da Ponte, Mozart made the arias -- solo songs -- carry along the action of the plot in contrast to the seria style of using arias to pause and reflect on earlier action.

The Libertine Archetype

When Mozart was preparing the opera, he is said to have checked out ideas in a cafe with the real-life Venetian libertine and memoirist Giacomo Girolamo Casanova.

At OTSL's "Spotlight on Opera" series, panelist Mary Barron, a Jungian analyst, said that Mozart's Giovanni "is not addicted to sex. He's addicted to the endless series of conflicts in reaction -- in the real-life Casanova's case to the trauma of having been abandoned by his mother at the age of 9," she said. The archetypal Don Juan fears being hurt so leaves a relationship before the woman can reject him as his mother did, she said.


OTSL stage directors and returning costume and set designer Bruno Schwengl want the audience to see that Don Juan archetype is not exclusive to the 18th century. Indeed, the audience will have the examples of Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and Charlie Sheen to consider.

Renowned baritone Sherill Milnes used to sing Giovanni as a "charming, swashbuckling Errol Flynn type," Robinson said. Saturday night, Madure won't be charming when he sings Giovanni, the director said.

"In our lives we like to have villains," Robinson said. "Sometimes our lives are less interesting without a sociopath."

Co-director Shell says Giovanni "is dying away on the inside but he does not reveal it on the outside."

Don Giovanni "is fast living, a Heath Ledger of Seville," Robinson added. "The moment he kills, he knows the clock is ticking."

Schwengl hopes to underscore the plot's relevance to today with a modern set and costuming. Giovanni strides around in a black leather jacket. The noblewomen wear elegant evening gowns that evoke Givenchy and Balenciaga -- think Audrey Hepburn and Jackie Kennedy. For the peasant bride, Schwengl chose a French country toile print.

Giovanni is also an anti-hero. When Giovanni tells his wise servant that he "loves all women equally," Leporello defies his boss singing, "You are going to Hell."

"Leporello has a moral compass," O'Leary said. "Don Giovanni has the chance to repent, but he refuses."

Some directors end with what's actually the penultimate scene of Don Juan in hell fire. In the original score, which OTSL is using, Mozart, a supreme entertainer, sent his Prague audience home smiling. The jilted women and most of the cast sing gloriously about how better off they will be without Giovanni.

"Don Giovanni" audience leaves with great melodies to hum all the way home.

That's one reason it is the seventh most performed opera worldwide.

Don Giovanni

Conductor Jane Glover

Co-directors James Robinson, Michael Shell

Lighting designer Christopher Akerlind

Choreographer Sean Curran

Don Giovanni Elliot Madore

Donna Anna Maria Kanyova

Donna Elvira Kishani Jayasinghe

Leporello Levi Hernandez

Don Ottavio David Portillo

Commendatore Andrew Gangestad

Zerlina Kathryn Leemhuis

Masetto Bradley Smoak

Nine performances: May 21, 25; June 2, 10, 12, 15 (matinee), 18, 22, 25 (matinee)

Patricia Rice, a freelance journalist, attended and covered OTSL's 1976 opening night "Don Pasquale" featuring Ron Raines.

Patricia Rice is a freelance writer based in St. Louis who has covered religion for many years. She also writes about cultural issues, including opera.

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