As the opening chords of Mozart’s Don Giovanni come from the pit, Eugene Brancoveanu as the Don turns to the audience, mugs, then stretches out luxuriously on the bare stage of the new El Cerrito Performing Arts Theater in a rectangle of light, while his man’s man, valet Leporello (Igor Vieira), lingers in silhouette further upstage, scratching his nose, picking his teeth, playing with his iPhone.
When a woman appears behind a low wall, breathing heavily, gazing at the Don, he puts on a mask, jumps the partition, kisses the beauty’s hand and disappears with her into the wings. His servant, in narrow-brimmed crushable fedora and dark Hawaiian print shirt, remains—seemingly oblivious, or bored —his face dimly lit by his cellphone as the starry sky unfolds above him.
Berkeley Opera’s first production in its exceptional new home—and the first show with Mark Streshinsky, who besides Don Giovanni has directed four previous operas for the company, as artistic director—goes right to work, fleshing out this seminal tale of the delights and savage deceptions of civilization without a wasted motion or breath. It embodies the panoply of music, operatic forms, and philosophies of life Mozart and Lorenzo Da Ponte had at their fingertips, crystalizing Baroque, Rococo, Neo-Classical orchestral and vocal splendor with the Enlightenment cult of man as the measure of all things. It is a breezy contemporary staging—one that cuts right to the quick, the Don finally devoured by his own self-love and recklessness, after all the delights and sorrows he encounters are displayed, with no moral outside of a wry chorus, “This is how the bad end up!”
The first act is briskly paced, following the Don’s new escapades and bringing back dogged reminders of his older ones in the form of Donna Elvira (Aimee Puentes), whom Don G. meets again in a hilarious scene staged as an exercise class, the chorus aerobically attitudinizing, the Don lasciviously taking it all in, as abandoned Elvira spews her complaint, enthroned on her mat and that of Donna Anna (Kaileen Miller, the woman at the beginning) with her fiancé Don Ottavio (Michael Desnoyers), sworn to avenge her father, the commendatore (James Grainger), whom Don G. bashed to death at the start—and who will return to claim the reprobate with an iron grip.
The second act is more leisurely, lingering on the different moods the Don’s lewd quest engender, yet nagged with a touch of foreshadowing as the libertine deliciously pays out the end of his own rope.
The comedy and the opera were based on Moliere’s masterpiece, drawn from Spanish theater. The clowning of the Commedia dell’Arte is marked in Streshinsky’s direction, the cast fully up to the hilarity, especially Brancoveanu and Vieira. And the tragedy, that looms up suddenly at the end, springs full-blown from the uproarious buffoonery that preceded it.
Streshinsky’s glib, easygoing modernization of the staging—more in delightful anachronistic touches than in any sense of a resetting of the story—only underlines the amazing freshness of a 220-year-old masterpiece. Mozart and Da Ponte were very clear in announcing proudly a new form of musical theater, one paralleling the beginnings of modern dramaturgy over the previous two decades by Diderot and Lessing (which, among other innovations, de-emphasized French Classicist theater and made Shakespeare into the model his plays have since become).
The cast members, including William O’Neill as Masetto and Stephanie Kupfer as Zerlina (Elyse Nakajima sang the role opening night), all contributed with both their singing and acting to the overall effect.
Yet standing above the rest, as his role virtually demands, was Brancoveanu, ably assisted by Vieira, showing by his leaps, his capering, his wonderful voice, his very expression, the whole character of the Don, charming and rapacious, an overgrown rich only child who will have his own way, deep only in self-regard. It would be hard to think of a better characterization of the great wastrel, the ne’er-do-well who makes a career, an artistic ouevre of philandery. Could Yuri Yuriev, Meyerhold’s Don Juan in his great production of Moliere in 1910, “no more than a wearer of masks ... fluttering through life,” have caught the spirit of the Don with such directness?
The orchestra, with Alexander Katsman’s crisp direction and flourishes at the keyboard, buoyed up the voices, elegantly propelling the action and adorning it, emphasizing the music’s economy and constant activity as much as its richness.
Streshinsky spoke to the audience opening night about the partnership created between Berkeley Opera, Streshinsky’s alma mater, El Cerrito High School (the theater is, in fact, the school theater) and the City of El Cerrito. It’s a momentous occasion for Berkeley Opera, the community and the performing arts in the Bay Area.
Presented by Berkeley Opera at 8 p.m. Friday, Feb. 26 and at 2 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 28 at El Cerrito Performing Arts Theater, 540 Ashbury (near Central), El Cerrito. $15-$65 (student rush, $15). (800) 838-3006. berkeleyopera.org.