Arts & Events

SF Conservatory of Music Does DON GIOVANNI

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Friday April 08, 2016 - 03:48:00 PM

In two performances, Friday, April 1, at 7:30 pm, and Sunday, April 3, at 2:00 pm, San Francisco Conservatory of Music presented Mozart’s great opera Don Giovanni. Casts were the same for both performances, and both were led by conductor Scott Sandmeier. I attended Sunday’s matinee and was delighted by the overall strength of the singing, but especially by the outstanding vocalism of soprano Evelyn Shreve as Donna Anna. Shreve’s limpid tone, clear diction, and admirable technique wrought majestic moments of coloratura singing in the role of the woman who, sexually assaulted by Don Giovanni in the opening minutes of the opera, then spends the rest of the opera crying out for vengeance. Of course, Donna Anna also devotes considerable time to fobbing off the insistent demands of her fiancé, Don Ottavio, that they marry as soon as possible. In most Don Giovanni productions I’ve seen, Don Ottavio is the weak link among the opera’s characters, but not here. Tenor Kevin Kyle Gino was a strong, utterly determined Ottavio, and his famous aria “dalla sua pace la mia dipende (“on your peace my own depends”) was beautifully sung. In this production, unlike most, the strongest point was the pairing of Donna Anna and Don Ottavio, both brilliantly sung here by Evelyn Shreve and Kevin Kyle Gino.  

As for the production itself, let’s start with the set. Designed by Steven C. Kemp, a single unit set for the whole opera featured an off-kilter gilded doorframe atop a red carpeted stairway leading downstage. A second door was at stage right, presumably leading backstage. On the garishly colored left wall was a roll-up door like those found on shops in a bazaar. There were also cubby holes at each front corner of the stage where characters could make quick exits if necessary. Finally, to make the stage-set all the more garish, there were jumbles of sculpted plastic limbs, mostly female legs, it seemed, strewn every-which-way on either side of the off-kilter doorframe. These sculpted limbs were lit in either an icy blue or a cream coloring. Perhaps these limbs were meant to suggest Don Giovanni’s many female conquests all piled up in a heap once they’d been had, so to speak. Or perhaps that wasn’t it at all. Were they even female legs in the first place? Nothing was clear. They were mostly a distraction to the eye. 

Director Jose Maria Condemi opted to have various characters walk onstage during the overture. This was a mistake. An especially big mistake was an orange-wigged hussy in short-shorts. Who in the world was she? Later, in the opera’s final scene inside Don Giovanni’s house, this mysterious female was joined by two more orange-wigged hussies, who were absent-mindedly pawed by Don Giovanni as he ate his dinner and dealt with Donna Elvira’s last-ditch attempt to save his soul. Okay, we get the point. Don Giovanni numbers a few floozies among his conquests. But why stage three of them as identical floozies, as if to say that Don Giovanni cares nothing about each individual woman he seduces? That goes very much against the grain of Lorenzo da Ponte’s libretto, which stresses that Don Giovanni loves variety in women.  

Let’s move on from the set and staging of this Don Giovanni, and let’s turn to the pairing of Don Giovanni and his sidekick-servant Leporello. The don was sung here by baritone Jarrett Porter, and Leporello was sung by baritone Jason Andrew Schilder. A more unlikely pairing one could hardly imagine. Jarrett Porter is a tall, lanky fellow with long dark hair, and he looked like a hippie. Jason Andrew Schilder is a stocky fellow with short hair who looked for all the world like Oliver Hardy. To make things worse, director Condemi opted to costume Leporello in shorts that looked like lederhosen and high black socks, with suspenders over his shirt. So utterly dissimilar were this Don Giovanni and Leporello that their Act II business of exchanging clothes and fooling Donna Elvira made no sense at all, for in this production no one could possibly believe that Jason Andrew Schilder’s Leporello looked anything like Jarrett Porter’s Don Giovanni even when wearing the don’s clothes. Oh well. Let’s get down to their singing. As Don Giovanni, Jarrett Porter was vocally adequate. While a bit lacking in power and immediacy, Porter at least demonstrated good vocal technique and fine Italian diction. As for Schilder, his Leporello was largely a disappointment. However, in the famous catalogue aria Schilder rose to the occasion and sang out with power and conviction. He was also forceful in his moments of indignation and his attempts to quit Don Giovanni’s employ. The rest of the time, however, Schilder mumbled and grumbled his way through the opera playing the buffoon, his voice parodying Leporello’s character rather than expressing it.  

In most productions of Don Giovanni, the character of Donna Elvira stands out as a highlight of the opera. With her violent mood swings, from sworn revenge against Don Giovanni to abject willingness to take him back if only he’ll have her, Donna Elvira is literally torn apart by the different strands of music she sings. In the role of Donna Elvira, this production featured a mezzo-soprano, Corinne Rydmann, rather than a soprano. While Rydmann was technically sound, her mezzo-soprano simply couldn’t express the full range of Elvira’s wildly fluctuating emotions. Rydmann sang well, and she has a fine voice. I look forward to hearing her in other roles more fitted to her mezzo-soprano voice. As Elvira, however, although she sang the music well, Rydmann’s performance didn’t fully capture the neurotic extremes of Elvira’s character. 

As the perky peasant-girl Zerlina, soprano Sabrina Romero gave a bright-voiced, nuanced performance. One could sense she was wavering in her duet with Don Giovanni where he sings “La cì darem la mano” (“There we’ll be hand-in-hand), and Zerlina picks up the melody and starts singing to his tune. After a few moments of acknowledging to herself that her resolve is weakening, she eagerly accepts his come-ons and sings out enthusiastically, “Andiamo!” (“Let’s go! “). Only the intervention of Donna Elvira prevents Zerlina from being yet another of Don Giovanni’s conquests. Meanwhile, Zerlina’s fiancé, Masetto, here sung by baritone Justin Scott Bays, is justifiably indignant at Zerlina’s apparent betrayal of him on their wedding day. Vocally, Bays was a strong Masetto, resentful and distrustful of his Zerlina, but soft as putty when she turns her charms on him.  

Finally, the Commendatore, Donna Anna’s father, was forcefully sung by bass Robert St. John, who wore a military officer’s jacket for his opening death-struggle with Don Giovanni and wore an all-white outfit complete with white face-paint for his appearance at the end of the opera as the mortuary statue of the deceased Commendatore. Conductor Scott Sandmeier led the Conservatory Orchestra and chorus in a taut performance of Don Giovanni. However, I wonder whose decision it was to leave out a very important line in Act II. When Leporello is bribed by a gift of money to remain in Don Giovanni’s employ, he asks one thing only. That Don Giovanni give up women. Missing was Don Giovanni’s response that “Women are as necessary to me as the food I eat and the air I breathe.” That line says a lot, and I regret that someone chose to leave it out of this production.