• “Don Giovanni” at the Mendocino Music Festival (July 18, 2014)

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    Don Giovanni: Eugene Brancoveanu

    Leporello: Dennis Rupp

    Donna Anna: Kelly Britt

    Donna Elvira: Youn Ryu

    Don Ottavio: Sergio R. Gonzalez

    Zerlina: Adina Dorband

    Masetto/Commendatore: Philip Skinner

    Conductor: Allan Pollack

    This was one of the quirkiest productions of Don Giovanni I’ve ever seen, and goodness knows, I’ve seen a few quirky ones before! It was a worthy spiritual successor to the wacky Il Signor Bruschino of last year’s Music Festival and fit right in with the general quirkiness of Mendocino itself.


    In keeping with the intimate venue and limited budget, it was a minimalist production – the unit set consisted of a bare stage, with a row of chairs on one side, and a semi-transparent screen on the other. The screen was used to show us important images in silhouette – e.g. a pantomime of Donna Anna’s near-rape and the first appearance of the Commendatore’s statue. The costumes were modern dress, but not tied to any real-world time or place; they looked like a mish-mosh from a thrift store. Don Giovanni wore a casual dark shirt, pants and hoodie, while Leporello wore a waiter-like tailcoat, top hat and bright red sunglasses. Donna Anna sported a faux fur coat, Donna Elvira a trench coat, and Don Ottavio an old-fashioned officer’s uniform. But even quirkier than the costumes was the staging, which rarely took itself seriously and didn’t waste a moment on “reverence.” Donna Anna was portrayed as blind, hence why she was so slow to recognize her father’s killer. Zerlina was initially portrayed as a nerd in a dowdy dress and glasses, but given a sexy makeover and dressed in an evening gown by the Don during “La ci darem la mano,” and from then on she became the adorable tease of tradition. The Act I finale, had the Don serve drugged wine to his guests, leaving them barely conscious; that was how he managed to sneak Zerlina away unnoticed. As in the opera’s premiere, Masetto and the Commendatore were played by the same singer, but instead of going the obvious route of casting a young bass and “aging him up” as the Commendatore, they cast an older bass, and Masetto was portrayed as an elderly man whom Zerlina was clearly marrying for convenience. Meanwhile, the Commendatore was a sick geriatric in a wheelchair whom Don Giovanni murdered by ripping loose his oxygen tank, and was still wheelchair-bound as a ghost in the climactic scene. His verbal duel with the Don was accompanied by an Ingmar Bergman-esque game of chess, and upon winning the game, he stood up, grabbed the Don and forced him into the wheelchair instead. Then masked “demon” versions of all the other characters appeared and wheeled Giovanni “to Hell.”


    Equally quirky was the production’s framing device. Its first image, which greeted us as we took our seats, was of a preteen girl sitting in a chair at center stage reading a book. As the overture started, she fell asleep… then woke up to find a seemingly dead man laid out on a slab and covered with a sheet at her right, and a group of ghostly, sheet-draped figures sitting at her left. At the urging of a masked woman in black, who appeared throughout the performance as a Brechtian stagehand, she pulled the sheet off the “corpse,” who sat up. Then she gave him a hoodie, turning him into Don Giovanni. She went on to transform the “ghosts” into the rest of the characters, removing their sheets and handing them various attributes (e.g. a bridal wreath for Zerlina, a bottle of alcohol for Donna Elvira). Then she left the stage and sat by the harpsichordist for the rest of the performance. But for the final scene she came back, and at the end, after the Don’s “descent” (the final ensemble was cut), a spotlight revealed her waking up in her chair. So apparently the whole opera was her dream – a dark, sexy Alice in Wonderland of sorts.


    I’ll admit, the production took a while to grow on me. It sometimes felt more like a parody of Don Giovanni than the real deal. But there’s no denying how creative it was, and it’s always nice to see a production remember that for all its moments of Sturm und Drang, this opera is supposed to be a comedy. I didn’t quite understand the framing device either. Was it saying that the Don Juan/Giovanni myth represents the subconscious fantasies of the female mind at puberty? But it was certainly a good excuse for all the surreal quirkiness – though just the fact that it was staged in Mendocino would have been enough explanation for me.


    Eugene Brancoveanu’s Don Giovanni left hardly anything to be desired. His powerful, deep caramel baritone rang gloriously through the festival tent, though now and then it was a little vibrato-heavy, and he commanded the stage with all the charisma, cruelty and hedonistic energy the role requires. He was well matched by the three female leads, all of them young, attractive and vivid stage presences. Kelly Britt’s Donna Anna was beautifully sung (she seemed to be in much better voice than she was in last year’s Signor Bruschino) and touchingly acted. This Anna’s innocence and love for Don Ottavio were genuine, and her blindness, which at first seemed like just another quirky production detail, poignantly enhancing her vulnerability in the end. Youn Ryu’s Donna Elvira was likewise vocally seductive, with her darker, lusher lyric voice; only in the florid parts of “Mi tradí” did she struggle a little bit. I wasn’t thrilled that the production forced her to play the character as a disheveled drunk, but she certainly wasn’t the first Elvira to lack the “sweet dignity” that the libretto tells us she has. Meanwhile, Adina Dorband had all the requisite charm for Zerlina, both physically and vocally. The supporting male singers were slightly less effective, but still good. As Leporello, Dennis Rupp sang with a slightly fuzzy timbre and uneven diction, but still met all the demands of the music and was an appropriately funny presence, yet never a caricature. Sergio Gonzales sang Don Ottavio with a lovely, if small and airy Mozartian/bel canto tenor voice, though the production made no real attempt to give the character substance. Philip Skinner was a gloriously imposing-voiced Commendatore and a solid Masetto, though I’d have preferred a younger singer in the latter role.


    Allan Pollack conducted with slightly slow tempos, but all the charm and passion that Mozart’s music requires. Since the performance started at 8:00 P.M. presumably as per the festival rules, the score was abridged – a complete, uncut performance would have sent us home after midnight! As I already mentioned, the Act II finale was cut, as was “Dalla sua pace,” “Ah, fuggi il traditor!” “Metá di voi qui vadono,” the “Eh via, buffone!” duet, the “Giovinette” ensemble (Zerlina and Masetto were introduced with a comic pantomime instead, in which Pollack came onstage and “married” them), and long swathes of recitative. Nor was there any chorus – all their Act I music was cut, in Act II Masetto came hunting for Giovanni alone (hence the cutting of “Metá di voi” – there was no mob to sing it to!), and the choral passages during Giovanni’s demise were sung by the principles. Last but not least, the placements of “Mi tradí” and “Non mi dir” were swapped, with Anna’s aria coming before the cemetery scene and Elvira’s coming after instead of vice-versa. I assume Pollack did this to improve the flow of action; Ottavio’s declarations of love and vengeance in “Il mio tesoro” led straight to his attempt to console Anna in the “Non mi dir” scene, while “Mi tradí” led directly to Elvira’s begging Giovanni to repent in the finale. Personally, though, I thought the change was completely unnecessary.


    This was far from a definitive Don Giovanni. I don’t think a definitive Don Giovanni is even possible – it’s too rich an opera. But I still couldn’t be happier that I saw it. It was strange and oh-so-quirky in ways both visual and musical, but it was well done, and most importantly, it was fun. Besides, I always enjoy leaving behind the big-city opera houses now and then and experiencing the art form in a different, more unconventional way. Like seeing it on a small temporary stage inside a tent on the seaside bluffs of a small, endearingly grubby, quirky town. I can only hope that next year’s Music Festival will include another opera (can I please start a petition for them to do Madama Butterfly? – it would feel so fitting in the seaside venue!) and only hope that I’ll enjoy it just as much as I enjoyed this one.

    • Bravo Bravo sumo. Amazing talent, cast, orchestra, and technical. May there alw a us be opera included at the Festival.

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