Searching for direction in ‘Don Giovanni’

By Matthew Guerrieri
Globe Correspondent / March 16, 2010

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Operatic comeuppance doesn’t get much more operatic than that of Mozart’s libidinous, murderous Don Giovanni, dragged to hell when the statue of one of his victims turns up with an offer the defiant Don refuses to refuse. New England Conservatory’s production of “Don Giovanni’’ last weekend didn’t descend to that level of punishment, but it was frustrating to see and hear so much vocal talent trapped in a presentation better suited for devil’s advocacy.

The opera’s twin poles were in excellent (albeit quasi-professional) hands. DongWon Kim, an artist’s diploma candidate with an already-long résumé (he had a role in Opera Boston’s “Tancredi’’ earlier this season), was a superb Giovanni, smooth and physically vital, vocally and musically stylish. Recent NEC graduate John Burton matched him as his servant/foil Leporello, with an abundance of lyricism and adroit comic energy.

The rest of the all-student cast was also admirable. Soprano Jennifer Hoffmann did estimable work as the jilted-and-vengeful Donna Elvira, her ringing voice warming into sharp focus as the evening went on. Angela Theis was a bright, bold, and beguilingly sung Zerlina; as her affianced Masetto, tenor Timothy Whipple was vocally unseasoned but ably used text and tone in the service of character. Mxolisi Duda sang Don Ottavio; his high range is a work-in-progress, but his elegant tenor displayed impressive legato and clarity. As Donna Anna, soprano Morgan Strickland sang with a constrained production at the top but compensated with jewel-like tone. Bass Anthony Leathem gave the Commendatore, Giovanni’s victim and ruin, an aristocratic refinement.

But such achievement and potential were ill-served by a relentlessly mediocre production. Guest director Marciem Bazell’s staging was full of unmotivated crosses and unwieldy geometry; characters were often placed at opposite ends of the stage, diffusing focus and emotional energy. (All the scenery looked like it was made of rumpled bedding — symbolically interesting, but visually drab.)

The blocking often contradicted the libretto. Why, in “La ci darem la mano,’’ was Giovanni asking to take Zerlina’s hand when he was already all over her? (And why did Zerlina pull him back to stay as she insisted “Let’s go’’?) Giovanni sang “Deh vieni alla finestra’’ (“Come to the window’’) without ever once looking at the window in question; the Commendatore’s statue demanded Giovanni grasp his hand from a vantage 12 feet up — eventually, the disconnects seemed arbitrary. Repeated conceptual commonplaces provided diminishing returns. (For Donna Anna to steal a sword out of a man’s scabbard is a feasible Freudianism; for her to do it twice more borders on kleptomania.)

Crucially, the singers themselves were underdirected; only Giovanni and Leporello fully, physically embodied their characters. Anna and Ottavio were particularly at sea, their body language tentative, their energy compromised; even passive characters need an active presence. Conductor John Greer drew a rich sound from the orchestra but took curiously little heed of the voices; his pace was often quixotically slow, and a disconcerting habit of abandoning eye contact with the singers at tempo changes frequently left them scrambling to catch up.

Still, there were moments when the student talent and initiative trumped all obstacles. Minimal staging finally let the chemistry between Zerlina and Masetto shine through during Theis’s touching rendition of “Vedrai, carino’’; Kim’s performance of Giovanni’s window serenade was memorable in its sophisticated soulfulness. Ideally, opera is a collaboration; but sometimes, well, the devil take the hindmost.


Mozart: “Don Giovanni’’

Marciem Bazell, director;

John Greer, conductor

At: Cutler Majestic Theatre, Friday