DALLAS—Ghostly women in white dresses and veils swirl around Don Giovanni during the overture. Donna Elvira cradles a baby in her arms. Nuns and priests parade across the stage at regular intervals, distracting the audience during moments of high drama.
So it goes at the Dallas Opera's new production of Mozart's "Don Giovanni," one of the greatest of all operas, but here sadly sabotaged by the eccentricities of director-designer John Pascoe.
The production, seen at the second performance of the season Sunday afternoon, also suffers from a crucial weakness at its core. Though most of the singing is terrific, baritone Paulo Szot in the title role is vocally underpowered and only intermittently effective.
It's hard to know what effect Pascoe is trying to achieve by inserting so much unscripted business into an opera that scarcely needs it. Some of his inventions are anachronistic to a work set in early 17th-century Seville, such as the camera with which the servant Leporello photographs his libertine master. Some are merely awkward, such as having the Don splash around in a fountain during his Champagne Aria.
But invariably these gimmicks pull our attention away from the characters and the music. It's bad enough that four priests troop onto the scene during "La ci darem la mano," the sublime duet in which Don Giovanni attempts to seduce the peasant girl Zerlina. Worse, Pascoe then turns the moment into low comedy, when one of the priests turn out to be Leporello in disguise, carrying a robe for Zerlina to put on over her simple dress.
The climactic scene suffers from excess as well, when the statue of Donna Anna's murdered father, the Commendatore, comes to life and summons Don Giovanni to hell. The statue makes an impressively scary entrance, but then becomes almost comical through a series of jerky, Frankenstein-like motions. He runs the Don through with his sword (another invention of Pascoe's) and departs, while those women in white return to send him on his way to the underworld.
Amid it all, most of the cast rises to a high musical standard. All three sopranos are excellent: Claire Rutter as Donna Anna negotiates her treacherous coloratura lines with power and ease; Georgia Jarman as Donna Elvira combines passion with pathos; and Ailyn Perez as Zerlina caresses her vocal lines with as creamy a lyric soprano as one could hope to hear.
Tenor Jonathan Boyd is impressively smooth and refined in the role of Don Ottavio, Donna Anna's patient sweetheart; bass Ben Wager is lively as Masetto, Zerlina's fiance; and bass Mirco Palazzi, in his U.S. debut, shows great spirit and comic timing as Leporello. A special word of praise is due to bass Morris Robinson, who delivers the Commendatore's lines with awesome power and rounded tone.
That leaves, Szot, who made such a hit in the recent revival of "South Pacific" and scored a successful Metropolitan Opera debut in Shostakovich's "The Nose" last season. He does cut a dashing figure on stage and acts the part well, but vocally he often fades into the background. The problem may be that his voice is too small to carry off a role that requires such vocal swagger and charisma. Or he may have been put off his game by the weirdness in the production around him.
The conducting of Nicolae Moldoveanu set a spirited pace with generally brisk tempos. But, especially during Act 1, he may have been too brisk, as he repeatedly had the orchestra playing a beat or two ahead of the singers.