Pérez’s conflicted Donna Anna becomes a costar in HGO’s “Don Giovanni”

Mon Apr 22, 2019 at 9:57 am
By Steven Brown

Ryan McKinny and Ailyn Pérez star in Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” at Houston Grand Opera. Photo: Lynn Lane

As the Houston Grand Opera Orchestra launched into the dashing Allegro of Mozart’s Overture to Don Giovanni, the curtain rose in the Wortham Theater Center. Women’s names began to materialize in the air–first singly, then in bunches–all scrawled in archaic script.

With the names growing so dense that they crowded each other out, the video projections let Saturday’s audience view the catalog of Giovanni’s conquests. diligently maintained by his servant, Leporello. When Leporello himself appeared, opening the opera proper, he added a fresh conquest’s name–Anna–that was superimposed onto a door on the set.

That door opened to reveal the first of the twists that Kasper Holten’s production introduced into Mozart’s tale of the legendary Don Juan–or Don Giovanni. Rather than fighting Giovanni off, Anna clung to him and caressed him, trying to draw out a tryst that evidently had been consummated. Her cries of “I’ll never let you go!” took on a new meaning.

Holten’s staging, seen in its U.S. premiere, built Anna into the story’s second protagonist, soon beset by remorse, the conflicted qualities captured arrestingly by soprano Ailyn Pérez, playing the role for her first time.

Meanwhile the title protagonist–portrayed by bass-baritone Ryan McKinny in his role debut as well –went through struggles of his own. Between amorous sorties, McKinny’s Giovanni sometimes slumped despondently to the stage, evidently gripped by ennui. At the start of the climactic banquet scene, he labored to bestir himself, frantically pumping the air with his fists.

Regardless of whether Mozart had such portrayals in mind, McKinny and Perez brought vivid singing and acting to their characters and were dramatically effective throughout. In the “Champagne” Aria and Giovanni’s final confrontation with fate, McKinny displayed the kind of sonorous darkness of tones he employed as the thunder-god Donner in Wagner’s Das Rheingold in 2014.

More often, though, his singing was light, animated and even sardonic. Giovanni’s banter with Leporello–planning escapades and mocking his detractors–took on a mocking edge. But when the womanizer went into seduction mode, as in the duet with young Zerlina or the Serenade, McKinny’s singing turned as graceful and delicate as if Giovanni were innocence personified.

Giovanni’s malaise came through, too in McKinny’s portrayal. When Giovanni told Leporello that women were as necessary to him as food, McKinny delivered the words in hollow half-tones that exuded weariness.

Anna’s journey was just as tortured. The willingness of her tryst with Giovanni meant that she lied as she told her sweetheart, Don Ottavio, that Giovanni forced himself on her. That gave a new, protest-too-much urgency to Anna’s “Or sai chi l’onore,” and Pérez’s luminous, vibrant singing–including a flourish that touched high D–made the aria blaze.

Pérez spun out her parts of the opera’s ensembles with a silky finesse that captured the pathos of Anna’s soul-searching. And the eloquence she gave Anna’s second aria, “Non mi dir,” made it virtually another climax for the opera. Pérez’s glowing, long-breathed singing filled the lyricism with urgency; she gave the coloratura finish such flow and glow that it radiated Anna’s desperation for inner peace.

Holten opted to leave out the final sextet.  Rather than being dragged down to hell by the statue of the Commendatore, Anna’s slain father, Giovanni crumpled at center stage. Anna, at the end of “Non mi dir,” gave no sign whether she was headed back to Ottavio.

For all that Anna and Giovanni commanded attention, Holten and associate director Amy Lane made the characters around them vivid, too.

Almost as soon as Donna Elvira, a woman from Giovanni’s past, came face-to-face with him, her inner conflict burst forth: soprano Melody Moore’s Elvira slapped him, loudly, then immediately planted a kiss on his lips. Moore’s hefty tones complemented Perez’s brighter ones. But when Moore wasn’t putting a wallop into Elvira’s outcries, she gave her introspections a hushed intensity–especially in the anguished recitative that led into her aria “Mi tradi.”

Baritone Paolo Bordogna cut a lively figure as Leporello, lusty in voice and fast on his feet, singing with gusto and resonance.

Holten’s staging pointed up how ineffectual Ottavio is: During his first aria, “Dalla sua pace,” the agonized Anna turned and left as he sang to her. But tenor Ben Bliss’s dignified bearing and fluent, graceful singing at lesat gave Ottavio a genuine sincerity.

Soprano Dorothy Gal and baritone Daniel Noyola made a spirited, lively pair as Zerlina and Masetto, the couple whose wedding Giovanni interrupts. Gal’s voice was a bit small in its lower range, but otherwise she captured the brightness and charm of Zerlina’s music, especially “Vedrai, carino.” Noyola sang with an impact that kept Masetto from coming across as a bumpkin.

Bass Kristinn Sigmundsson, as the Commendatore, opened up with booming tones that helped propel the final scene’s apocalyptic impact.

The HGO Orchestra, led by Cristian Măcelaru, added its own force at the opera’s climax, as well as playing with nimbleness, clarity and spirit. Măcelaru made plenty of the room for the singers to caress Mozart’s lyricism.

Designer Es Devlin’s two-level set revolved to change between an expanse of doors and a multi-chamber interior. But her creation served even more evocatively as the recipient of video projections designed by Luke Hall.

Anja Vang Kragh’s costumes suggested a 19th-century time frame, with Anna wearing a glittery black gown and Ottavio in white tie and tails. Giovanni, thanks to his flowing hair, long coat and top hat, at times resembled Franz Liszt in his heyday–an apt touch considering Liszt’s reputation as a womanizer.

Besides conjuring up the names from Leporello’s catalog, Hall delivered splashes of red when Giovanni killed the Commendatore and a vista of peaceful, scudding clouds when Giovanni wooed Zerlina. And during the sextet “Sola sola in buio loco,” Halls’ projections conjured up five gloomy hallways, making it look as though the singers were roaming endlessly down them. That may have been the most haunting image of the night.

Don Giovanni runs through May 5 in the Wortham Theater Center. houstongrandopera.org; 713-228-6737.

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