Saturday, August 02, 2014

A Brilliant Don Giovanni at Merola Opera

The Merola Opera young professionals training program performed Mozart's Don Giovanni on Thursday at the intimate Everett Middle School Auditorium in one of the most thoughtful, confounding, and brilliant productions of the overproduced warhorse that I have ever seen. The principal cast members were (above, left to right) Scott Russell as the Commendatore, Yujin Kim as Zerlina, Karen Chia-ling Ho as Donna Elvira, Edward Nelson as Don Giovanni, Amanda Woodbury as Donna Anna, Szymon Wach as Leporello, Benjamin Werley as Don Ottavio, and Rhys Lloyd Talbot as Masetto.

Last week I interviewed the director James Darrah (above) along with friend and fellow arts writer Janos Gereben. We were curious about Darrah because of his recent work at the San Francisco Symphony, staging a makeshift Peer Gynt two years ago along with the recent, spectacular production of the Britten opera, Peter Grimes. Darrah turned out to be a delight: articulate, funny, and extremely smart as he detailed his first opera job at a summer festival in Croatia at age 22 assistant directing the chorus in Nabucco, his obsession with the Greek and Latin classics along with their translation into Handel operas, and his recent Peter Grimes experience. Gereben's account of that interview on San Francisco Classical Voice can be found by clicking here along with a post about Chromatic, Darrah's production group with a circle of collaborators he has known since his days as a Theater & Film student at UCLA.

He described the Merola production of Don Giovanni as follows: "I told the cast, and they have been making fun of me constantly over this quote, 'I’m so not interested in wading through the morass of tradition with this piece.' [Merola] thought they wanted to do something very, very traditional to give the student singers the experience of corsetry and costumes and so on. And I said, 'well, what if there are corsets involved, but what if we actually strip everything out of the theater and make it all about Mozart’s music?' "

He continued, "The designers did an amazing job, the whole thing is set in what looks to me like some chic loft in London, just like some industrial space. Giovanni becomes this creative individual, an artist type, who is in pursuit of pleasure and beauty in other people. Leporello becomes a gallery assistant, he wears an apron and is working. I asked [Edward Nelson], the Giovanni, have you ever been around these fashion designers or these really famous people? The people with the big names are undeniably talented but there is a team of people that make everything happen, they make it all occur, and that’s Leporello."

The standouts in Thursday's cast were Nelson as a young, suave, rich and powerful Don Giovanni and especially the three principal women above, who all sounded ready for prime time on any opera stage. Amanda Woodbury (on the left) sang and acted Donna Anna fearlessly, giving the best vocal performance in the role I've heard since Elza van den Heever made her debut at the San Francisco Opera. Karen Chia-ling Ho was a dramatically fierce and beautifully sung Donna Elvira and somehow made the character's I-love-him/I-hate-him oscillations plausible rather than neurotic for a change. Yujin Kim as a Zerlina blinded by Giovanni's wealth and celebrity on her wedding day to Masetto was a beautiful, nuanced performance that ranged from assertive to victimized and back again. My only wish was that Merola had brought back Xian Zhang who conducted a marvelous Marriage of Figaro for Merola last year, rather than having Martin Katz conduct. He wasn't terrible, like SF Opera Music Director Nicola Luisotti usually is with Mozart, but he wasn't very good either. (The publicity photo above is by Darrah himself.)

Besides setting the entire opera in Giovanni's live/work loft, which doesn't correspond to the original libretto at all, Darrah's most radical staging step was with the small chorus, performed by Merola singers who have appeared in earlier shows this summer. The chorus part is written to be Zerlina's peasant wedding party, but Darrah transformed them into a group of young, upscale, haughty, black-clad hangers-on in Giovanni's milieu. This wasn't clear at first, though their blase acceptance of carrying away the Commendatore's murdered body on Giovanni's instructions should have been the first clue.

During the usually frenetic Act One finale, they sat around looking bored and not at all interested in the fact that Zerlina, the only person onstage dancing in a drunken burst of happiness, was about to be raped, obviously nothing new at Giovanni's parties. After intermission, the audience returned to find the chorus draped across the floor and furniture passed out after what looked to be a sloppy, orgiastic all-nighter. They were then put to use as silent, blindfolded, see-no-evil headstones in the cemetery scene. Those same black blindfolds were used as mouth gags in the Banquet Scene which was the major coup de theatre of the evening. Instead of the usual chicken and champagne props, the chorus was assembled around and on top of a large table surrounding Don Giovanni, where it was made clear that the snacks to be feasted on were other people. It was disturbing, erotic and an altogether perfect updating of a savage story that's often been made cute and acceptable in "traditional" performances.

The production and costume design by Cameron Mock and Emily MacDonald (above, with Darrah to their left) was alternately austere and fussy, modern and old-fashioned, and continuously interesting. It was also good to see that even with all the sexual depravity that's suggested in this staging, there was no exploitation of the young singers themselves. There was zero nudity, not even when Giovanni and Leporello are switching costumes, so you won't be seeing them splayed all over the Barihunks blog. The comic business between the two was wonderful all night, and so was the interplay between all the singing actors. Best of all, the entire cast looked completely committed to what they were doing, and even when the staging became obscure or confused, they performed with a sense of perfect comprehension that carried over the footlights. At the end of the night, it felt like centuries of varnish had been removed from a musty old painting. Bravo to everyone involved.


sfphoneguy said...

Great review of a great show - nicely done MIchael!

Patrick J. Vaz said...

"plausible rather than neurotic" -- sorry, I had to chuckle. To me, neurotic equals plausible. Once again, you are the poster boy for mental health!

Michael Strickland said...

Dear Patrick: Hadn't thought of it that way, but of course you're right.

Dear Charlie: Thanks, you plus-one Craigslist harlot.

ChrisO said...

wonderful review, my friend

Axel Feldheim said...

Impressively thorough account of the evening. You clearly got much more out of the staging than I did. Interesting comment about the director avoiding the temptation to exploit the youth & attractiveness of his cast. Judging by the photos of Mr. Darrah, he could probably well identify with them.

Michael Strickland said...

Dear Axel: Thanks. And yes, during the interview Darrah mentioned that most of the cast were close to being his own age (30).