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September 27, 2012

'Don Giovanni' gets stylish revival from Washington National Opera

All things considered, the opening of Washington National Opera's season is quite strong, especially in terms of that elusive, hard to pin down concept known as style.

"Anna Bolena" features a great deal of stylish singing, conducting and orchestra playing. Same for "Don Giovanni."

The Mozart work is presented in a revival of the 2007 John Pascoe production, which looks simultaneously elegant and hip, complemented by imaginative costumes that give off a time-traveling hint of a "Dr. Who" episode.

Some of Pascoe's stage pictures -- a moody church scene, for example -- are as enchanting in their own way as the music (Donald Edmund Thomas' refined lighting is a significant star in this staging).

If the director gets carried away with comic stuff in a spot or two (one of them when Leporello pops up in a priest's outfit, fake nose and glasses during the "La ci darem la mano" duet between Don Giovanni and Zerlina), it's easy enough to go along.

Even things like ...

the baby being carried around by Elvira and passed off to nuns, or the scantily clad female spirits who flit through the opera and form an all-girl band at the Don's supper party before helping to lead him to hell, fit persuasively enough.

The whole concept seems more persuasive than I recall from the first production. What helps it all click is that Pascoe knows how to get a cast uniformly not just into character, but into the essence of an opera. He also knows how to keep an opera entertaining -- not at all an inappropriate gift, I'd say.

Ildar Abdrazakov shines in the title role. He has a lush bass voice that won't quit. The tone alone can seduce, especially when the singer files it down to a honeyed mezza voce, as he does in a downright mesmerizing interpretation of the Serenade.

Abdrazakov is a magnetic actor, too, thoroughly at ease on the stage and convincing as an unrepentant, totally hands-on rake.

He's also persuasive carrying out an idea Pascoe has spiced the production with -- the Don's lingering feelings for Donna Elvira.

Here, the former lovers almost seem on the verge of going all "Private Lives" and reuniting a couple times (at the end of Act 1, this Don Giovanni plants a big kiss on his former lover, which shocks everyone long enough for him to make his escape).

This intriguing concept gains added plausibility from the dynamic portrayal of Elvira by Barbara Frittoli. The soprano's voice, with just a glint of steel beneath its creaminess, and her unfailingly colorful phrasing yield consistent pleasure.

Andrew Foster-Williams does a winning job as Don Giovanni's sidekick Leporello, revealing a particularly astute sense of comic timing. If the bass-baritone is a little underpowered at the lower reaches of his voice, the rest is solid and vibrant, while his attention to nuances of text is everywhere apparent and incisive.

Meagan Miller's Donna Anna, to begin with, looks fabulous in some of Pascoe's most elegant costumes (one of her hats would be quite a hit at Ascot). The soprano doesn't produce a lot of tonal variation, and she can sound a bit edgy when pushed, but she phrases sensitively and spiritedly.

In the role of Don Ottavio is a very impressive tenore di grazia, Juan Francisco Gatell, who delivers "Dalla sua pace" and "Il mio tesoro" with refined nuance and admirable breath control. It's a pleasure to hear such a first-rate musician in this role, someone who doesn't take a single note for granted. He even manages to keep the character from seeming wimpy, no small feat.

Veronica Cangemi is an endearing Zerlina. She makes her entrance at a terrific clip, without losing her grip on the music, and proceeds to add numerous layers of charm. The soprano sculpts "Batti, batti" and "Vedrai, carino" with a melting tone.

Cangemi and Abdrazakov create one of the production's musical high points in an unusually spacious account of "La ci darem la mano" that finds both singers purring irresistibly (in a nice touch, the duet ends with the Don -- literally, as Joe Biden would say -- sweeping Zerlina off her feet).

The exquisite shaping of that duet owes much to conductor Philippe Auguin, WNO's sterling music director. Scene after scene, the score unfolds beautifully, with plenty of breathing room and rhythmic elasticity (note how the brief trio of masqueraders becomes here such an ethereal, time-stopping moment).

Such qualities are not always encountered in Mozart performances these days, ever since the historical authenticity crowd started pushing leaner, faster, brighter. Auguin ensures a continual glow from the pit, where the orchestra does finely detailed playing.

Back onstage, the cast is filled out by Aleksey Bogdanov, a vibrant Masetto; and Solomon Howard, a Morgan State grad and current member of WNO's Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program who does a sturdy job as the Commendatore.

Whatever quibbles there might be with little things in the staging, the big visual picture proves striking. Together with the extraordinary personality in the music-making, the combined effect is a freshly absorbing encounter with one of the most familiar works in the repertoire.

Performances continue through Oct. 13 at the Kennedy Center. The cast for the final performance will consist of current and former WNO young artists.


Posted by Tim Smith at 7:01 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes, Opera

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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