Estados Unidos

Beneath the Death’s Head

Jesse Simon
martes, 30 de agosto de 2016
Santa Fe (Nuevo México), sábado, 6 de agosto de 2016. Santa Fe Opera. Mozart: Don Giovanni K. 527. Ron Daniels, director. Daniel Okulitch (Don Giovanni), Kyle Ketelsen (Leporello), Leah Crocetto (Donna Anna), Edgaras Montvidas (Don Ottavio), Keri Alkema (Donna Elvira), Rhian Lois (Zerlina), Jarrett Ott (Masetto), Soloman Howard (Commendatore). Chorus and Orchestra of the Santa Fe Opera. John Nelson, conductor
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The stage of the Santa Fe Opera was empty, and from the auditorium one could see out to the distant mountains where the final clouds of a dramatic storm had parted to reveal a few final shafts of evening sun. Then the overture began. As it progressed, a shape emerged from behind the stage, rising until it had eclipsed the sunset: it was a large copper-coloured sculpture of what appeared to be a skull shrouded in fabric. This image of death would dominate the stage for the next three hours but, apart from sheer bulk, it contributed remarkably little to a production of Don Giovanni which was otherwise deeply traditional. However the performance, given as part of the Santa Fe Opera’s sixtieth season, rarely failed to entertain and was elevated frequently by its strong cast.

One can perhaps see what director Ron Daniels and set designer Riccardo Hernandez were attempting to achieve with their giant head: the story of Don Giovanni can be enhanced greatly when the notion of mortality looms over its title character. The shrouded skull, however, seemed both overly literal and somewhat incongruous, especially in a production which offered few other suggestions that Don Giovanni’s time was running out. (It also looked a bit silly; during the interval one could hear members of the audience making unflattering comparisons to Darth Vader and The Mummy).

Ensemble cast in 'Don Giovanni' K. 527. Ron Daniels, director. John Nelson, conductor. Santa Fe Opera, August 2016 Ensemble cast in 'Don Giovanni' K. 527. Ron Daniels, director. John Nelson, conductor. Santa Fe Opera, August 2016 © Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera, 2016

Throughout the performance one kept waiting for the head to do something – perhaps for it to split open in the final scene to reveal the Commendatore – but instead it just took up valuable real estate on the stage, sliding backward and forward every so often just to remind us of its presence. Yet its size, paradoxically, made it easy to ignore; and once the production’s chief conceptual artefact had been relegated to the background, one was left with a conventional and, at times, superficial retelling of the story. The action remained close to the stage directions and the elegant costumes suggested something of the opera’s specified period; but there seemed little effort to go beyond traditional readings, to search for the ambiguities in Donna Anna or highlight the futility of Don Giovanni’s efforts.

If the staging offered few insights into its characters, it nonetheless remained broadly entertaining for its duration. The comedic scenes were, for the most part, genuinely funny – for which Kyle Ketelsen’s energetic, endearing Leporello deserves much credit – and even the serious exchanges between Don Ottavio and Donna Anna conveyed a credible sense of the story’s basic emotions. Certainly there were few lulls in the action. Yet there seemed to be a pronounced gulf between recitatives and numbers: where the dialogue sparkled, the arias and ensembles often seemed far less dynamic. This may, to some extent, have been due to Mr Daniels’ penchant for manoeuvring the characters to the front of the stage and leaving them there to sing; yet it was John Nelson’s musical direction – consistently too brisk and sometimes perplexingly erratic – which proved more problematic. The singers did not appear to have the same easy rapport with the conductor as they did with continuo fortepianist Glenn Lewis, whose unerringly attentive accompaniment provided the recitatives with the necessary breathing room for a more natural drama to unfold.

Leah Crocetto (Donna Anna) in 'Don Giovanni' K. 527. Ron Daniels, director. John Nelson, conductor. Santa Fe Opera, August 2016 Leah Crocetto (Donna Anna) in 'Don Giovanni' K. 527. Ron Daniels, director. John Nelson, conductor. Santa Fe Opera, August 2016 © Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera, 2016

The excess of orchestral speed, on the other hand, rarely worked to the advantage of the singers or the narrative development. ‘Là ci darem la mano’ was robbed of both its pastoral grace and its elegant dramatic arc: a less cursory reading might have rendered Zerlina’s eventual submission more credible. Similarly, the rushed pace of Leporello’s catalogue aria left little room for the requisite humour and cynicism, and a greater degree of rhythmic flexibility would have given the Commendatore’s death considerably more pathos. Yet if the singers all seemed to struggle at various points with the musical direction, there were numerous moments of great distinction.

Leah Crocetto, as Donna Anna, had the kind of arrestingly full voice that commanded one’s complete attention from her very first line. The promise displayed in her brief initial exchange with Don Giovanni was fully realised in a series of subsequent appearances, each stronger than the last. She was captivating in the first act quartet without eclipsing the other singers, and uncommonly strong in her early duet with Don Ottavio, although it was her superb ‘Non mi dir’, which provided the evening with one of it’s vocal high-points. She was paired with a Don Ottavio whose profound sincerity didn’t obliterate all sense of personality: Edgaras Montvidas had a starched, aristocratic demeanour and a restrained passion in his delivery that worked well. Although he downplayed the character’s frustration, his repeated attempts to console Donna Anna were suitably heartfelt.

Kyle Ketelsen (Leporello) and Keri Alkema (Donna Elvira) in 'Don Giovanni' K. 527. Ron Daniels, director. John Nelson, conductor. Santa Fe Opera, August 2016Kyle Ketelsen (Leporello) and Keri Alkema (Donna Elvira) in 'Don Giovanni' K. 527. Ron Daniels, director. John Nelson, conductor. Santa Fe Opera, August 2016 © Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera, 2016

In the title role, Daniel Okulitch had a buoyant, virile manner, and his recitative appearances were uniformly excellent; the strengths of his vocal performance, however, were revealed only gradually. He seemed overly rushed in the first scene – more, perhaps, by the conductor’s baton than the Commendatore’s sword – and his attempts to woo Zerlina were not wholly convincing. However his ‘Fin ch’han dal vino’ was tight and energetic and his ‘Deh vieni alla finestra’ offset lyrical delivery with an edge of attitude. Kyle Ketelsen was an undeniably crowd-pleasing Leporello; his exaggerated physical manner and sarcastic asides rarely failed to generate a response from the audience, and his attempts to mimic Don Giovanni’s gallant moves during the trio ‘A taci, ingiusto core’ provided the evening with its most inspired moments of comedic acting. However his numbers were of an equally high quality. If he seemed to struggle against the pacing of the orchestra during his catalogue aria, his contribution to the second act sextet and the following ‘Ah pietà’ were both exceptionally strong.

As Donna Elvira, Keri Alkema remained convincingly angry throughout the evening: in the sextet she seemed genuinely enraged to discover she had just spent the evening with Leporello, and even her final attempt to sway Don Giovanni in the second act finale seemed born more of injury than amorous passion. Yet her quick temper and headstrong nature made the elegantly phrased doubt of ‘Mi tradì quell’alma ingrata’ all the more compelling. Rhian Lois, on the other hand, seemed an odd choice for Zerlina; her voice was notably deeper in tone than one might expect from the character. Yet she was an engaging presence on the stage and delivered her two arias with an abundance of charm. As the object of Zerlina’s affection, Jarrett Ott seemed more dynamic and less rustic than the average Masetto, even if his agitated ‘Ho Capito’ couldn’t quite find its natural rhythm. Soloman Howard’s rich bass and commanding presence suited the Commendatore perfectly.

Although tempi remained an issue throughout the evening, one could hardly fault the playing of the Santa Fe opera orchestra whose crisp woodwinds and agile strings were able to conjure a consistently pleasing Mozart sound; and if Mr Nelson often found himself at odds with the singers during the arias, his efficient approach worked well in the taut first act finale. Mr Daniels’ attempts to treat the story as a memento mori may have been ultimately unconvincing, but his lively staging could not have failed to please anyone looking for a straightforward retelling of one of opera’s greatest tales.

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