Friday, May 3, 2013

Fin ch'han dal vino: Don Giovanni with the New York Opera Exchange

Don Giovanni in 1963
The New York Opera Exchange has followed up their inaugural season's Cosi fan tutte with another production of a Mozart/Da Ponte opera commenting on American iniquity. I saw Wednesday's opening night performance of a Don Giovanni set in the nation's capital in a fictionalized 1963. Jennifer Shorstein's minimalist production provided a dark commentary on the amnesties granted by privilege of office in an ostensible meritocracy, and on the personal tragedies created by a society floundering under the burden of hypocritical standards. This production, focusing on oppression based on class and gender, rewrites history: the all-male cliques of licit and illicit power--Don Giovanni is a politician, the Commendatore a mafia boss--are multiracial. While the female members of the chorus are given merely decorative functions--in which they compete and express gratitude for male attention--the three principal women are given distinctive motivations for their social and sexual agency. Against the libretto, Donna Anna is presented as giving her consent to Don Giovanni, but outraged and frightened by his failure to fulfill the terms of the social contract as she sees it by entering into a permanent and licit relationship with her. Zerlina, in one of the production's intelligent touches, seems to feel an obligation to live up to the doctrine of free love in "La ci darem," but soon decides that her own free choice lies with Masetto alone. Donna Elvira is not a proud aristocrat, but a woman who, pathetically, pitiably, clings to Don Giovanni as a possible liberator. Her only social resources are a clinging dress and cheap lipstick, and she is destroyed by the society that has created her. And it is this society which is victorious: Don Giovanni is an abuser of power, but not an anarchist, and he is slain by the successor of the crime lord whom he murders. The cycle of cold-blooded violence continues.

The orchestra was a newly formed ensemble, and showed considerably improved cohesion over last year's showing, although there were issues in coordination with the singers. This I'm inclined to attribute to the inflexibility of conductor David Leibowitz's tempi. Balance issues in the first act were largely corrected in the second. The strings were occasionally imprecise but acquitted themselves well; the woodwinds performed with some distinction. The horns did well until the final scene, when disaster struck: the Commendatore was heralded with bizarre cacophonies. Fortunately, matters were set right for the final ensemble.

As the ruthless Commendatore, Paul Khuri Yakub almost inaudible in the first scene, but suitably sonorous in the last. Jacob Louchheim's Masetto began somewhat colorless but gained in strength as the evening went on. As Zerlina, Sydnee Waggoner gave a dramatically engaged and vocally precise performance. She made "La ci darem" into a discussion rather than a flirtation, and sang with winsome expressiveness despite unusually fast tempi in "Batti, batti." Don Ottavio (in this production entirely obtuse, as well as ineffectual) was sung by Brian Michael Moore. He sounded pinched at the outset but gave a very nice "Il mio tesoro." As Donna Anna, Kaley Lynn Soderquist was occasionally inaccurate in pitch but exhibited a soprano that was rich and full, as well as agile. She handled phrasing expressively, and did admirably in the face of orchestral muddle. The Donna Elvira of Rebecca Shorstein was plagued by a lack of synchronization with the orchestra at the outset, and she struggled with intonation in the first act. Matters improved considerably in Act II, and Shorstein's "Mi tradi" was accurate and much-applauded. Perhaps my failure to warm to her was partially due to incomprehension of her characterization. Andrew Hiers portrayed Leporello as a comic but also complicit aide to the don. He sang with rich, well-spun sound, and the expression of emotion through the voice which is crucial in this multifaceted role. He also had good vocal and dramatic chemistry with the Don Giovanni of Nicholas Wiggins. Wiggins was a charismatic presence, with a sizable, dark voice, and he sang with smooth phrasing, giving an impressive "Fin ch'han dal vino." His cry of "Viva la liberta!" was a demand for society to share his vision; the rejection of the demand achieves nothing beyond his death. For all the musical interest of the Opera Exchange's productions, their dark dramatic vision remains their most distinctive asset.


  1. Hi Lucy - note that "Dalla Sua Pace" is not sung in this production. You may have meant "il mio tesoro"

  2. Also I believe Rebecca Shorstein sang Donna Elvira, not Jennifer Shorstein.

  3. Dear me, two errors in one post! The mistyped aria is particularly vexing. Thanks for pointing them out.


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