John Frayne | Music was bright spot in Lyric Theatre's 'Don Giovanni'

John Frayne | Music was bright spot in Lyric Theatre's 'Don Giovanni'

The Lyric Theatre @ Illinois production of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s masterpiece opera opened on Feb. 22. Before the opening, word had gotten around that Mozart’s and Lorenzo da Ponte’s 18th century serial seducer and sexual assaulter, Don Giovanni, would be changed into a 21st century corporate raider in this setting. But, even with advance notice, an audience member on opening night might be startled to read a two-page summary of the action by Michael Tilly, music administrator, in which it is stated that no longer does Don Giovanni try to rape Donna Anna; now he drains her company of all its financial resources. Giovanni does not kill the Commendatore; after a scuffle with Giovanni, the old man falls down a staircase to his accidental death. Donna Elvira is now Giovanni’s wife, and does drugs, on stage, which are carried around by a servant who is a new, non-singing character in the drama, played energetically by Caitlin Elizabeth Hennessy.

The trouble with these changes is that the Da Ponte text is sung, and translated, mostly as always, in which Donna Anna indeed describes an attempted rape, not a hostile takeover. By changing Donna Elvira from discarded mistress into wife makes even more absurd than usual Giovanni’s slow realization of who she is. These are but a brief sampling of the oddities that occur when you pour an old and familiar masterpiece into a new, and rather opaque, bottle.

But as usually happens with such radical updates, after the early novelty, herein symbolized by a busy corporate office that serves as setting, has worn off, you get, musically and vocally, a basic performance of this great opera.

So, despite what this audience member’s eyes told him, what did his ears tell him? The singing at this performance, with this cast, aroused my admiration, even at times to the superlative level. As expected, Nathan Gunn as Don Giovanni gave a suave vocal performance, and dramatically dominated the odd proceedings. As Giovanni’s rebellious servant, Leporello, Dean Perry Moore delivered a memorable catalog aria, with on-screen video, making it somewhat of a power-point presentation.

Premier among the afflicted ladies, Yunji Shim as Donna Anna sang a powerful denunciation aria, “Or sai chi l’onore,” which brought down the house. I would advise a less super-charged volume level in the small spaces of the Tryon Festival Theatre, but her later aria, “Non mi dir,” was beautifully sung at a lower level. At the curtain calls, Shin got a mini ovation.

Also singing admirably was Gabrielle LaBare, albeit saddled with the distressing characterization of Donna Elvira.

Ryan Bryce Johnson gave appealing performances of Don Ottavio’s two arias. Alas, halfway through his accomplished traversal of the difficult aria “Il mio tesoro,” (“My Treasure”) a screen flashed on behind him, giving stock quotations. Some bright ideas should be shot on sight.

The roles of the peasant couple, Zerlina and Masetto, were well acted and sung by Loucine Brigitte Topouzian, soprano, and Xiaoyi Zha, bass, who was the only member of this modernized cast to get a chance to fire a weapon, however accidentally.

The one set, the corporate office, with balcony, designed by José Manuel Díaz-Soto, somewhat wore out its welcome by the end of the evening, and the dominating staircase seemed to offer the constant problem of what to do with it.

Conductor Filippo Ciabatti decisively drew a sparkling performance from the student orchestra, and they all were rewarded by strong applause at the curtain call. The chorus members, in their climactic moments, sang with enthusiasm, well prepared by Fernando Malvar-Ruiz. Alex Munger ably played the recitative continuo at an onstage piano. The supertitles, run by Nole F. Jones, went smoothly.

This production marked Gunn’s debut as an opera director, and the alarms and excursions across the set were well managed, and Gunn drew dramatically convincing performances from the cast members.

There were scenes in which Giovanni admired a large portrait of his mother, indeed, even singing his famous “Serenade” to her! Are we invited to consider Giovanni the victim of an Oedipus complex? It has been suggested before that such sexual hyperactivity may be a sign of insecurity about his own sexuality.

Among other significant changes is the absence of the Commendatore’s statue. Without a Stone Guest, Giovanni therefore suffers his punishment via computer screens announcing his financial collapse, thus “death by stock quotation.” Despite my sympathy for anyone suffering from computers, this ending seemed a bit flat. And lastly, the final jolly Sextet, in which the survivors face the future, was omitted.

During the cheerful curtain call, some in the audience stood. Whatever one’s reaction to this production, it will not be easily forgotten.   

John Frayne hosts “Classics of the Phonograph” on Saturdays at WILL-FM and, in retirement, teaches at the UI. Reach him at frayne@illinois.edu.

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