Opera review: Cinnabar Theatre’s “Don Giovanni,” a new production that is sure to ignite your passions, through April 15, 2012
When Cinnabar Theatre cast baritone Anders Froehlich for the title role in their new production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, the classic retelling of the Don Juan legend, they were half way home. Not only can Froelich sing, but he has the physique of a lean and muscled Romeo. And, he so convincingly plays the part of Mozart’s suave, seductive, and morally reprehensible aristocrat, that it’s pure pleasure to sit back and experience being seduced by him. Add to that baritone Eugene Walden’s remarkable performance as Leporello, Giovanni’s faithful but grumbling sidekick, and this production soars. Truth be told, the entire cast is superb, the music is glorious and the production is so creative that it represents the opera’s tremendous dramatic possibilities as well a small theatre company at it best.
One of the most amazing aspects of this 225 year-old opera is that it is so filled with fabulous ambiguities, that almost every production emphasizes something different. Cinnabar’s production, staged by Elly Lichtenstein, gives us a Don Giovanni whose beguiling and complex personality is matched by the equally complex women he encounters. After the opening night performance, I found myself ruminating on these women—what they represented in their time and what they bring to the table in the here and now. There’s the unhinged young Donna Anna (soprano Kelly Britt), who has, in the very least, been ravished by Don Giovanni and is mourning the death of her father, who was murdered trying to defend her honor. Normally, she’s depicted as icy cold and hell-bent on retaliation. Here, we also see her warmth and humanity. There’s matronly Donna Elvira (mezzo soprano Eileen Morris) who has been jilted by Giovanni and she too seeks revenge and but, beneath the hurt, she still loves him and can’t free herself of her co-dependent obsession. When she tries to protect young Zerlina from Giovanni’s reckless ways, we see a preservation instinct that we wish she’d exercise on herself. There’s the young peasant girl Zerlina (soprano Emma McNairy), who loves Masetto but is also taken in by the suave Giovanni’s proclamations and the high life he represents. She wants both men and, for a moment, deludes herself into thinking that this can work. And then there is the chorus of women, voluptuous nymphs in all shapes and sizes, writhing in full sensual abandon with each other and with Don Giovanni. The opera’s rich comic and tragic elements are driven by all these interactions and Lichtenstein has really made Giovanni’s journey—to eternal damnation—one riveting ride.
23 year-old soprano Emma McNairy was delightful as Zerlina. Winner of the San Francisco Conservatory’s 2011 Voice Concerto Competition, McNairy’s expressive voice shows incredible range and she has a commanding stage presence. And did she snap into character! She played Zerlina as sweet and crafty, bringing a refreshing and realistic complexity to the role. Her pairing with William O’Neill as Masetto, her hunky intended, produced some of the opera’s most fiery moments, another example of the sizzling chemistry that makes this production pop.
Soprano Kelly Britt as Donna Anna was striking—her distinctive voice was smooth, powerful, and evocative. From the moment she appeared, she displayed a whirlwind of emotional extremes that made the impact of Donna Anna’s rape, or ravishing, by Don Giovanni and the sudden death of her father seem very real. The twenty-three year-old has that extra something coursing through her that produces a riveting sound, not yet honed to perfection but on its way, and that’s very exciting to experience.
First to appear and last to utter a solo, baritone Eugene Walden was a thoroughly engaging Leporello. One of the opera’s most humorous moments occurred during his lighthearted “Catalog Aria,” (Madamina, il catalogo è questo) (Act I, Scene v). As the beleaguered Leporello sings the amazing tally of his boss’s conquests to Donna Elvira, he pulls out a seemingly endless accordion book, chock full of women’s faces and descriptive notes, and flings it towards Donna Elvira. This gesture so captivates and infuriates her that she engages in a tug of war with him over the book. This is just one of Elly Lichtenstein’s clever and amusing touches whose effect is priceless. Another of these magical moments occurs with the famous balcony serenade at the beginning of Act II. Just behind the singer and through a widow, we see a very seductive striptease occurring between two voluptuous women in silhouette—the scene is gorgeously back lit and has all the resonant flair of a fan dance. As the women almost get it on, you can feel the heat rising in the audience. The sensuality is carried through to the famous banquet scene, done wine country style, with Giovanni dining on plump grapes and scantily-clad women. In the opera’s final chilling scene, the powerfully built John Minágro, who makes a very commanding Commendatore, now turned singing statue, comes to swoop Don Giovanni to his just desserts—hell. Froelich’s Don Giovanni’s is so intoxicating that, even on his way to hell, he still gets to us.
One of the pleasures of the hearing Mozart’s dramatic music played in the intimate 99 seat setting that Cinnabar offers is that every musician stands out. Conductor Mary Chun and the orchestra of 10 did a valiant job, offering an elegant and cohesive blending with the voices on stages, but at times the sound seemed understated. I had never heard the opera sung in English before, which is the only opera experience that Cinnabar Theatre provides, keeping with founder Martin Klebe’s wish to make opera accessible to all audiences. The main advantage is an immediate understanding of the story, which means it’s very easy to take it all in and you’re not scrambling with translation. If you know the opera in Italian, its beloved arias such as There, we will entwine our hands (Là ci darem la mano), (Act I, between Zerlina and Giovanni) are made all the more enjoyable by singing them in Italian in your mind and checking your Italian against the English as you go.
Music by W.A. Mozart, Libretto by Lorenzo da Ponte, Sung in English (da Ponte’s full translation/libretto translation of Don Giovanni is available free online here.)
Mary Chun artistic director/conductor; Elly Lichtenstein, Stage Director
The Cast, in order of appearance:
Leporello— servant to Don Giovanni, Eugene Walden
Don Giovanni—Anders Froehlich
Donna Anna—Kelly Britt
The Commendatore, Anna’s father—John Minágro
Don Ottavio, Anna’s fiancé—Mark Kratz
Donna Elvira—Eileen Morris
Zerlina— Emma McNairy
Masetto, Zerlina’s fiancé— William O’Neill
Sandrina, Leporello’s love—Arden Kwan
Paul Gilger, set design; Wayne Hovey lighting design, Tracy Hinman Sigrist, costume design, Barton Smith, choreography
Underwritten by Frank and Mary Lou Schomer and The A to Z Concert series.
Details: Cinnabar Theatre is located at 3333 Petaluma Blvd. North (at Skillman Lane), Petaluma, CA, 94952. Tickets online: $35 General, $32 Seniors 65 & Over, $25 Age 22 & Under. Tickets also be purchased before the performance but pre-purchase of tickets is highly recommended as the theatre is small. Early arrival is also recommended as there is no assigned seating. For more information, call 707-763-8920 or visit http://www.cinnabartheater.org
Run time is 2 hours and 20 minutes, with one intermission.
There are 5 remaining performances: Wednesday April 4, 2012, at 7:30 p.m., Saturday, April 7, 2012, at 8 p.m. Friday, April 13, 2012, at 8 p.m., Saturday, April 14, 2012, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, April 15, 2012, at 2 p.m.