With a last-minute sub, Dallas Opera’s updated “Don Giovanni” makes an impact

Sat Apr 14, 2018 at 4:55 pm
By Wayne Lee Gay

Craig Verm performed the title role in Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” at Dallas Opera. Photo: Karen Almond

NOTE: Craig Verm will sing the role of Don Giovanni in all remaining performances.

The late cancellation by international superstar Mariusz Kwiecien in the title role of Mozart’s Don Giovanni sent Dallas Opera’s production team into a frenzy Friday night.  The internationally renowned Polish baritone had been ill for several days and let company officials know Friday morning that he would be unable to perform. (As of Saturday afternoon, Kwiecien is still scheduled to perform Sunday’s matinee and four subsequent performances.)

The show, of course went on Friday, with baritone Craig Verm, the designated cover, stepping over from his scheduled performance of Masetto, and baritone Andre Courville, Verm’s cover for Masetto, moving into that role.

    When the curtain went up as scheduled,  there, as expected, Leporello stood alone on the stage–glancing at his wristwatch (a late-19th-century invention), thus signaling that this would be a version of Don Giovanni with time very subtly (and appropriately) turned inside out.

    There have been many retellings of the story of the mythical womanizer Don Juan through the centuries, but few equal and none surpass the character created by Mozart and his librettist Lorenzo da Ponte. Decades before Freud and Jung, Mozart and Da Ponte envisioned a combination of sexual horror story and comedy (enlivened with one of the greatest musical scores of all time) featuring a Don Giovanni who is a serial rapist, a sadist, a murderer–and, as is often the case for this sort of person in real life–incredibly charming.

Director Robert Falls and set designer Walt Spangler presented this current version for Lyric Opera of Chicago in 2014, keeping the original setting of Spain but pushing the action vaguely into the early twentieth century. Elvira arrives on a motorcycle, wearing pants, and Leporello and Don Giovanni snort cocaine. The backdrop includes neon signs as well as a massive, mutli-purpose façade hinting at traditional Spanish architecture; flowers in full bloom abound, adding color (and more opportunity for Freudian symbolism).

Falls’ directorial collaboration with Spangler also includes handcuffs and restraints, as well as pistols, gunshots, and blood in greater plentitude than in the score and libretto, enhancing the already present sadomasochism and violence. The ballroom scene at the end of Act I, accompanied by a famous minuet, was beautifully choreographed and staged to convey tension of classes and the complexity of the multiple concurrent situations. Ana Kuzmanic’s costumes, likewise pleasantly ambiguous in terms of time period, provide constant interest and meaningful character revelation via well-placed eccentricities–most notably in Leporello’s clownish attire for the final scenes.

All the last minute flurry and instability may well have affected the performance, though by no means catastrophically. Conductor Emmanuel Villaume, usually razor sharp in his command of impetus and precision, was a bit tentative in the opening sections, and the connection between the cast and the orchestra slipped fitfully throughout the evening. By the beginning of the second act, however, Villaume’s characteristic command was well in place, pulling the listener relentlessly toward that miraculous final sextet.

Bass-baritone Kyle Ketelson immediately demonstrated the complex comedic skills to pull off the role of Giovanni’s grumpily enabling servant Leporello; Ketelson demonstrated the necessary timing for the famous “Catalog aria” in the show. But it was only in the second act that he obtained full vocal power; in the penultimate scene and the appearance of the Commendatore, his frenzied hunger combines with a confident vocal presence for a characterization that was both frightening and comical.

Likewise, soprano Katie Van Kooten as Elvira impressed immediately with a stunningly beautiful tone quality; however, this almost dusky tone tended to fade at the ends of phrases; she warmed into full and consistent vocal power in “L’ultima prova dell’amor mio.”

Mezzo-soprano Virginie Verrez, who arrived later in the first act, was in full command both vocally and dramatically as Zerlina, carrying off the emotionally difficult, submissive aria “Batti, batti o bel Masetto” with a winning combination of a clear, lyric quality. Tenor David Portillo as Don Ottavio demonstrated a beautiful and warm tone, along with an amazing breath control and impressive ability to sustain phrases in his two arias, easily producing faultless extended crescendos in the long phrases.

Soprano Laura Claycomb delivered competently as Donna Anna, but failed to gain the power her colleagues managed over the course of the evening. bass Morris Robinson provided a commanding presence as the Commendatore (with his voice delivered through loudspeakers in the cemetery scene). Baritone Courville moved convincingly into the role of Masetto on short notice.

In the title role, baritone Craig Verm was convincingly handsome, seductive, and casually cruel; he was not, however, always in vocal form to match the rest of the cast vocally, a situation understandable under the circumstances. “Deh vieni alla finestra,” in which Don Giovanni attempts yet another impulsive seduction, was particularly directionless, Still, Verm should be commended for taking on this epic task on short notice, and for being well prepared dramatically and musically competent throughout a role that is monumentally challenging even in the best of circumstances.

Dallas Opera’s production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni will be repeated at Winspear Opera House at 2 p.m. on Sunday and April 29, and at 7:30 p.m. on April 18, 21, and 27. dallasopera.org; 214-443-1043. Baritone Mariusz Kwiecien is currently scheduled to perform the title role in subsequent performances.

One Response to “With a last-minute sub, Dallas Opera’s updated “Don Giovanni” makes an impact”

  1. Posted Apr 15, 2018 at 1:03 am by Claeri Venzke

    Dear Mr. Wayne Lee Gay,
    In all opera houses there are last dates for the cancellation by the singers.
    Certainly also in “The Dallas Opera”. Why, then, between the lines, a negative statement about the late cancellation of (I quote) “international superstar Mariusz Kwiecień”?
    Mr. Kwiecień is rightly a superstar who always gives more than 100% to his audience on a high level and does not easily cancel a performance at the last moment. Which artist does it easily?
    If, as you write, the Dallas Opera House has already known about Mr. Kwiecień’s indisposition for a couple of days, it may not have made the house as unprepared as it sounds in your article.
    With all due respect for the short-term jump of Mr. Craig Verm (I was in the premiere in the audience), he is finally the cover and must expect his commitment.
    On the one hand, I am pleased with the great applause that Mr. Verm has received from the audience for his short-term jump in.
    I would like to say, however, that the great artistic difference (both vocal and theatrical) between the two artists was more than clear.
    Mr. Kwiecień sings in a completely different league! Nevertheless, everyone can get sick once.

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