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Don Giovanni Showcases Company’s Strengths

San Jose
Montgomery Theatre
01/30/1999 -  and 31 January, 2, 4*, 5, 6, 7, 9, 11, 13 and 14 February, 1999
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Don Giovanni
Brian Leerhuber/Nmon Ford-Livene (Don Giovanni), Maris Vipulis/Carl King (Leporello), Christina Major/Stacy Rigg (Donna Anna), Teresa Brown/Hope Briggs (Donna Elvira), Dana Johnson/Susan Mello (Zerlina), Robert McPherson/Thomas Truhitte (Don Ottavio), Brian Carter/Joseph Wright (Masetto), Christopher Dickerson (Commendatore)
Opera San Jose Orchestra and Chorus; Barbara Day Turner(Conductor)
Daniel Helfgot (Director)

Opera San Jose maintains consistently high production values, working wonders in the small space of the Montgomery Theater. The company also boasts a remarkable strong contingent of young singers and a large, supportive audience. So for those organized enough or lucky enough to see OSJ’s production of Don Giovanni, the rewards were many and the problems few.

Most of the roles are double cast and both are of the same overall high quality. Appearing in the second cast in no way indicates being second rate. As proof of this, in the title role Nmon Ford-Livene gave a dynamic performance characterized by well-defined acting choices and a rich, robust vocal delivery. This was a dangerous, pitiless Don Giovanni who quickly resorted to violence if charm failed. Ford-Livene easily handled the role’s vocal demands including an elegant, long-breathed "Deh vieni alla finestra" with graceful ornaments and an expressive, articulate command of the recitative. Occasionally the harshness of the delivery crossed over into virtual sprechtstimme, but the excesses were rare.

As his hapless henchman, Leporello, Carl King continually resorted to a limited number of stock gestures which tired quickly and were void of comic effect. Unfortunately, King was also miscast vocally, his small lyric baritone unable to cope with the lower passages.

Stacy Rigg gave a fully committed performance as Donna Anna, launching into the rigors of the music with aplomb and style. When operating at full throttle, Rigg’s voice has a big, impressive sound, but when she pulls back, the top becomes tight and wiry, as if not enjoying the same degree of support and freedom. Rigg certainly has the vocal goods for the role though and is well on her way to developing a technique to go with her full, appealing tone and incisive musicality.

Hope Briggs’ Donna Elvira was perhaps the most fully developed character in this production of Don Giovanni. Briggs’ capably brought out both the blazing fury of the role as well as her continuing love for the womanizer. She conveyed full gamut of emotions with conviction and moving honesty. Briggs paced herself expertly matching vocal purity and dramatic intensity.

Almost as much the seducer as the seduced, Susan Mello’s Zerlina was no wide-eyed innocent but an attractive and confident woman able to hold her own with Don Giovanni and easily gain the upper hand with her Masetto. The voice is full an mature sounding which matched Mello’s interpretation well. She is also an accomplished actress, exhibiting Zerlina’s flirtatious, temperamental and ultimately loving nature with ease and charm.

As her Masetto, Joseph Wright had his own share of charm to exude and for once, the character came across as something more than a wimp. Indeed, one could understand how Zerlina could stick with her Masetto despite Don Giovanni’s attentions in Wright’s loving, good-natured interpretation. Wright also exhibited considerable musicality and command of the recitative, melding text and music to a unified, utterly natural sounding whole.

Don Ottavio never managed to emerge as a contender in this production. Thomas Truhitte’s stiff, uncomfortable stage presence affected his vocal production which was likewise unwieldy and effortful. Truhitte’s lack of vocal ease and inadequate technique left him singing at the same forte level throughout the performance and at odds stylistically with the music. He cuts a dashing figure on stage, but has not yet learned to turn it to his advantage.

As the Commendatore, young bass Christopher Dickerson made a valiant effort to sound imposing within the limits of his youthful sound, but could not resist adding artificial weight and darkness which impeded the beauty of tone and vocal line.

The staging by Daniel Helfgot worked smoothly and expanded on the performers’ interpretations sensitively. The sword-fight between the Commendatore and Don Giovanni looked muddy on opening night, but in the later performance was clearly staged as a cold-blooded murder, Don Giovanni callously pushing away the dying man as he reached for help and wiping his sword on his victim’s dressing gown. While Helfgot was unable to persuade some cast members, leads and chorus alike, to develop a more natural, convincing acting style, he managed to keep the smaller voiced singers forward as much as possible without hindering the overall stage movement.

Barbara Day Turner’s conducting struck a happy balance between assertiveness and sensitivity toward the singers. She allowed Ford-Livene a leisurely tempo for his serenade in order to take advantage of his phenomenal breath control but she also kept a tight rein on the many ensembles, pacing them strongly and supportively.

The production with sets by Joe Ragey provided a fluid, flexible acting area with a group of four two-storied platforms with arches, balconies and doorways in various configurations to suggest the various locales and aided by additional set pieces. At times the setting seemed to dictate the staging rather than the other way around, but for the most part it served well and created a handsome sturdy visual picture to set off Julie Engelbrecht’s cavalier period costumes.

Kelly Snyder



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