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Constitution Hall
03/29/2003 -  and 31 March, 3,6, 9, 11* April 2003
Amadeus Mozart: Don Giovanni
Erwin Schrott (Don Giovanni), Robert Pomakov (Leoporello), Riikka Hakola (Donna Anna), Jennifer Casey Cabot (Donna Elvira), Irina Mataeva (Zerlina), Feodor Kuznetzov (Commendatore), Daniil Shtoda (Don Ottavio), Hung Yun (Masetto)
Thierry Bosquet (costumes), Joan Sullivan-Genthe (lighting), John Boesche (projection designer), Sara Erde (choreographer)
Giovanni Reggioli (conductor)
John Pascoe (director and set design)
Washington Opera Chorus

WASHINGTON, DC--In setting Mozart’s oft-told tale of “Don Giovanni,” Placido Domingo, Washington Opera’s artistic director, and John Pascoe, director and set designer, sought to make the audience want Giovanni’s due punishment at the opera’s end—well deserved and just banishment to hell or some variation thereof.

The Domingo-Pascoe plan failed, but not because of anything they did or didn’t do. The only way the idea could have succeeded is if the singer singing the Don was horrid which, in this case, most decidedly wasn’t the case. In fact, Uruguayan bass Erwin Schrott is one extremely exciting singer-actor whose every moment on stage commands the stage and audience interest. The fact that he exudes sex as he swaggers about and appears topless (highlighting one of those triangular physiques) doesn’t sway attention the other way. One is inclined to say that this choice role was meant for Schrott.

The result is that we like this Giovanni. The libretto builds in the comedy and Schrott simply amplifies it. That, in and of itself, makes not liking his character a bit difficult. It’s amusing stuff. In the hands of a handsome, theatrically talented, and vocally stunning Schrott, there’s no way the audience feels his doom is justified or even desired. In this case, our time with this Don is engaging and enjoyable. There's absolutely nothing Schrott could do to make us feel his doom was justified. What Schrott offers is just too satisfying to feel otherwise, regardless of the director's intent.

The only real reason we’re happy to see him dragged away is that, in this evening’s performance, it signified the end of a very long event. To explain: The Washington Opera’s home in the Kennedy Center is being renovated. Consequently, it spent $2.5 million to enhance Constitution Hall, just across town from the Center. And there are many wonderful things about this new, although temporary venue. The stage has been developed into a thrust stage that allows three-side viewing. It also allows many more entrance and exit points that, along with multi levels, bring much diversity to staging. The renovation also allowed some snazzy multimedia projections to be used on a giant scrim that is positioned at the rear of the performing space.

Because the hall has no pit and no place for an orchestra, the musicians must sit on the stage behind that giant scrim. Television monitors dot the hall and stage area, allowing singers to see the conductor from every possible vantage point, which expands possibilities in blocking. The scrim also permits the use of theatrically enhancing projections to complement the scenery, which is essentially props, since real scenery would block the sound of the orchestra. While it sounds awkward, it actually works and worked quite well.

A problem, however, and the one that tried patience in this performance, is that the huge stage area prevents the use of a proscenium curtain or even a scrim to conceal changes of scenery. Consequently, movement of props necessitates stagehands on stage in full view. And, while they were cleverly incorporated into the cast of characters, there were many instances where the production became the production. When nothing else is happening on stage except watching stagehands push and pull a large stairway piece and several tall columns back and forth, across the stage, the novelty became painstakingly and seemingly endless. Add to this a very warm auditorium, questionable sight lines, and you’ve got a situation that tarnishes an otherwise shining musical endeavor.

The good news is that, in retrospect, the positive aspects of the new venue allowed the company to expand its conceptual musings and move into some very interesting visuals and aspects of staging. And, the hall is only a temporary place to be. The good news is that the excellent cast was heard easily and not hampered by tricky acoustics. And, that’s important. One doesn’t want audiences to leave the theatre humming the scenery as one critic once said. And, while the production aspects will continue to be the source of comment among the company’s fans, one cannot heap but mounds of praise on the casting.

Aside from Schrott, the cast was ennobled by the presence of Canadian Robert Pomakov as Leoporello, whose bass was rounded and resonant and whose comic abilities were delightfully fresh and fun. He offered an effective contrast to the swaggering Schrott and brought significance to the performance.

The trio of ladies was well served by Finnish soprano Riikka Hakola as Donna Anna, American soprano Jennifer Casey Cabot as Donna Elvira, and Russian soprano Irina Mataeva as the flirtatious Zerlina. Russian tenor Daniil Shtoda provided a solid Don Ottavio, as did Korean baritone Hung Yun a credible Masetto. Major bravos to Russian bass Feodor Kuznetzov as the Commendatore who, in the last scene, as the statue, was larger than life on stilts-singing dramatically and with great conviction, while moving about a precarious tiered stage.

Giovanni Reggioli conducted the orchestra with a firm and knowing baton, drawing from the musicians a balanced sound that was effective in its positioning on stage never flooding the hall with sound that obscured the voices. Pascoe’s stage direction, scenery movements aside, was quick, purposeful, and clever. John Boesche’s multimedia projections were interesting and visually enhancing in a way that even finely crafted scenery often cannot equal. There was a depth and richness that appealed to the total impact.

All in all, this Washington Opera Don Giovanni was a winner. The company’s substantial investment in enhancing this temporary performing space is a sign of the group’s commitment and determination to produce top quality opera. It’s an investment that’s already paid handsome dividends.

John C. Shulson



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