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Musical Strength Overcomes Weak Staging

San Francisco
War Memorial Opera House
06/03/2000 -  7, 11, 13, 17, 22, and 28, June and 1 July, 2000
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Don Giovanni
Dimitri Hvorostovsky/David Okerlund (6/17; 7/1m) (Don Giovanni), Alfonso Antoniozzi/Philip Horst (7/1m) (Leporello), Monica Colonna/Nicolle Foland (6/17; 7/1m) (Donna Anna), Carol Vaness/Maria Pia Piscitelli (7/1m) (Donna Elvira), Anna Netrebko/Peggy Kriha Dye (6/17; 7/1m) (Zerlina), Gregory Turay/Norman Shankle (6/17; 7/1m) (Don Ottavio), Reinhard Hagen (The Commendatore), Stanislaw Schwets/Kyu Won Han (7/1m)
San Francisco Opera Orchestra and Chorus, Daniel Beckwith (Conductor)
Lotfi Mansouri and Graziella Sciutti (Stage Directors)

To start off the summer season at the War Memorial Opera House, the San Francisco featured a lavish new production of Mozart’s enduring masterpiece, Don Giovanni. With solid musical virtues and inoffensive, if bland dramatic ones, this Don Giovanni looks as sumptuous as it sounded, but had nothing new to say about the work.

With his usual expertise, stage director Lotfi Mansouri put his singers through the paces to create a fluid, pleasing stage picture, allowing them the chance to look and sound their best without extraneous stage business. On the down side, Mansouri brings nothing new to the work and is content, as is frequently the case, with merely telling the story and not delving beneath the surface of either the plot or the characters for any substance, relevance or insight.

Thierry Bosquet’s sets and costumes appeared to have little to do with Seville or any other part of Spain, taking instead inspiration from Italy. This was a brighter, more colorful Don Giovanni than many with lavish costumes and a multi-leveled set that was under-utilized and ultimately over-designed.

Musically and vocally this Don Giovanni did credit to the company. Daniel Beckwith made a noteworthy conducting debut leading a clean, middle-of-the-road reading with well-proportioned tempi, expert stage and pit coordination and a keen sense of balance. The orchestra responded with a transparent, vibrant reading of the score and the singers sounded comfortable and secure in their roles.

The three women took top honors in the cast, each delivering superb accounts of their respective roles and dominating the stage with their presence and sense of character. Making her company debut as Donna Anna, Monica Colonna displayed a soprano with plenty of warmth and beauty coupled with projection and focus to essay Mozart’s vocal line with accuracy, musicality and seductive tone. Her "Non mi dir" in Act II was heartrending in its elegant phrasing, and emotional immediacy. The role has little variety or nuance, but Colonna managed to develop a fully rounded character evoking both sympathy and respect for her situation.

In the more complicated and extroverted role of Donna Elvira, Carol Vaness delivered one of her best performances with the company ever. In fine vocal state and her fiery dramatic presence ablaze, Vaness played the role to the hilt, finding the truth in Elvira’s emotional extremes. Vocally Vaness proved that she is still one of the foremost Mozart singers of today, with full chest tones, fearless attack and the requisite range to do justice to the role. In her "Mi tradi" she let loose with a volley of vocal fireworks and impassioned phrasing while maintaining the vocal line in exemplary fashion. As Zerlina, Anna Netrebko was pure sunshine. She emits an aura of radiant purity and irresistible charm and in this role it worked perfectly. Her flawless singing was likewise radiant and pure, her acting unaffected and touching, and her appeal palpable. The inclusion of a rarely performed duet for Zerlina and Leporello may have helped make the second act overly long, but well worth it just to have Netrebko on stage for a few more minutes. The male side of the cast delivered more mixed results. Reinhard Hagen was a suitably imposing Commendatore with a ringing bass, focused and firmly sung. Stanislaw Schwets was suitably inelegant Masetto, his singing masculine and sturdy. As Don Ottavio, Gregory Turay displayed remarkable breath control, flawless pitch and superb musicality. But his tone was excessively nasal and the lower register lacked resonance. Dramatically, Turay was unable to make any more of the role than the libretto provides. With his remarkable comedic skills, Alfonso Antoniozzi should be a natural as Leporello. And as Mansouri conceived the role he was the consummate clown engaging in broad physical humor at every turn. Unfortunately, the concept was pushed well beyond the bounds of taste to the point of distraction. Antoniozzi’s dry baritone already sounds woolly and muffled, so to have him sing with a scarf around his face or with food in his mouth as happened more often than it should have only compounded the problem. Antoniozzi has a wonderful ability in wedding the musical and textual sense of a phrase to make it sound utterly natural. But he mars this knack with imprecise rhythms and vague pitch that jar with the precision of the rest of the cast. And in the title role, the renowned Siberian baritone Dimitri Hvorostovsky sounded suave and elegant in contrast to his physical interpretation of the role. This was a Don who coerced and bullied and demanded rather than charmed and wooed and seduced. To an extent, it is a valid approach, but it made for a one-sided view of this multi-faceted character, and the view became tiresome despite Hvorostovsky’s dashing looks and burnished tone. Vocally he found an more apt approach with his easily produced and projected voice carrying well and sounding aristocratic. Hvorostovsky certainly has all the requirements for a superb Don and with a stronger director and continued acquaintance with the role, may become a major interpreter of the role. But for now, it is an interesting study, not a finished portrait.

Kelly Snyder



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