Freud attempted to explain and explore human lust and love in scientific terms a hundred years ago. A hundred years earlier, Mozart and his librettist Lorenzo de Ponte had already covered the same ground artistically—and, one might well argue, more accurately—in the opera Don Giovanni.
Saturday, Fort Worth Opera’s 2010 festival season opened at Bass Performance Hall with a production of that masterpiece that not only illuminated many of the psychological and emotional aspects of the piece, but which brought the score to life with an extraordinary level of musical momentum and vocal brilliance.
Although the cast was strong in every role, it was the two sopranos who made the most memorable vocal impression. It’s hard not to view Donna Elvira and Donna Anna as competitors for the vocal honors in any production of Don Giovanni. And, on this, opening night, it would be difficult to declare either a winner over the other. Holli Harrison not only brought stunning vocal beauty to the role of Donna Elvira, but sang with apparently indefatigable consistency and confidence. Susanna Phillips, on the other hand, introduced a fearless brilliance in the role of Donna Anna.
The pairing of Michael Todd Simpson in the title role with Thomas Corbeil as his faithful, ever-complaining manservant Leporella was a masterstroke on several levels. Both lean and tall, with long brunette hair, they created a visual pairing that continually emphasized their embodiment of opposite aspects of humanity. While in any decent production of Don Giovanni the tension of master and servant between these two is one of the central aspects, the physical similarities between these two singing actors emphasized Mozart and Da Ponte’s subtle dig at the rotting class structure that pervaded Europe . The ability of both to move with impressive agility across the stage added to their effectiveness as a team, and the powerful beauty of both of their voices further enhanced the magic of their performance. Along with the bounding energy the two brought to their roles, director Richard Kagey introduced numerous small but significant elements—Giovanni casually wiping the blood off of a dagger on his shirt, for instance, or Leporello’s rebuffed attempt to join Giovanni at the table for a meal—that constantly reminded the audience that Giovanni, sexy aristocrat though he may be, is still a compulsive thug of the worst sort.
Meanwhile, Ashley Kerr as Zerlina, Matthew Young as Masetto, and Matthew Treviño as the Comendatore all contributed vocally and dramatically to what added up to an outstanding ensemble performance.
R. Keith Brumley’s sleek, symmetrical sets, originally designed for Lyric Opera of Kansas City, provided an elegant but unobtrusive backdrop that allowed the characters and their moods to stand out vividly while underlining the psychological aspects of the drama. Costume designer Howard Tsvi Kaplan reached back into the Spanish Renaissance, the time of the origin of the Don Juan legend, for the costumes—rather than the late eighteenth-century attire usually presented in productions of Don Giovanni. Colors very effectively further emphasized and distinguished characters, from the mournful solid black worn by Donna Anna and Don Ottavio to the fleshy tones worn by the gullible Donna Anna.
Conductor Joe Illick chose a nearly romantic view, emphasizing a lush fluidity and lyricism in the score; the brilliance of the vocal performances and the straightforward intelligence of the production combined to make this an engaging Don Giovanni on every level.
From left: Zerlina (Ashley Kerr), Leporello (Tom Corbeil), and Don Giovanni (Michael Todd Simpson). Photo courtesy of the Fort Worth Opera