Sunday, June 03, 2007

A Star Is Born at Don Giovanni

Mozart's "Don Giovanni" opened the three-opera San Francisco summer season on Saturday night and the event was marketed as "Summer Passion" around town.

Due to a last-minute cast change that's been a public relations disaster, along with a replacement singer making a remarkable major debut, there's probably been more genuine passion around the opera house than was originally intended.

The short version of the story is that a local Bay Area soprano, Hope Briggs, had been cast as Donna Anna, the leading female role, in a new production of "Don Giovanni" and then she was abruptly fired by the company's new General Director, David Gockley, after the final dress rehearsal earlier in the week because she was "unsuitable" in the role.

Last-minute replacements happen all the time in the opera world, either because of illness or because singers' voices break down between the time they are signed to a contract and the actual performances two to five years after they were originally cast. Still, the firing of Ms. Briggs set off a firestorm of outraged protest that even reached the pages of "The New York Times" on Saturday morning. In fact, for a good recap of all the sound and fury, check out "The Standing Room" blog (click here) which has links to everyone.

Adding to the hullaballoo is the fact that not only is Ms. Briggs well liked on the local regional music scene, but she's black and her last-minute replacement was a young white South African, Elza van den Heever. Hints of racism were being bandied about, particularly by a friend of Ms. Briggs in the Berkeley Daily Planet, and other hints were being dropped that the reason for the firing was that Elza would look better on the new HDTV broadcasts that are being initiated with this production.

So how was the play, Mrs. Lincoln? Well, the new production that is being shared with Brussels is one of the darkest and ugliest sets I've seen on the San Francisco Opera stage in some time, and the direction by Leah Hausman is something of a mess, with no Commendatore statue singing in the graveyard, a completely confused first act finale, and a pathetic rendering of Don Giovanni going to hell at the end of the opera. On the plus side, all the male singers were wonderful, with the sexy Polish hunk Mariusz Kwiecien as a riveting Don Juan and Charles Castronovo turning the tenor stick figure of Don Ottavio into an impossibly sweet-sounding, beautiful young lover.

Twyla Robinson as Donna Elvira and Claudia Mahnke as Zerlina are both intelligent, stylish Mozart singers but they both seemed to be miscast in their respective roles. (Why didn't they kick THEM out, then, the supporters of Ms. Briggs are probably wondering). Still, they were both fine, and even kept up with maestro Runnicles whose conducting of the score was mostly exquisite although it was taken at a breakneck speed for most of the evening.

Elza van den Heever (above) was accepted into the Adler Fellows program at the San Francisco Opera three years ago as a mezzo-soprano, and somewhere along the way somebody noticed that she wasn't a mezzo but possessed a huge, dramatic soprano voice instead. This has made it difficult for the company to cast her in minor roles as they have with the other Adler Fellows, because Elza's voice was in transition and it's freakishly large with the ability to fill up a 3,000 seat theatre unamplified with power to spare.

Originally, she had been cast to make her opera house debut in a minor maid role in "Der Rosenkavalier" this summer, but Gockley and Runnicles decided instead to throw her into the deep end of the pool as the Prima Donna of "Don Giovanni" with three days' notice. Guess what happened at Saturday's premiere? By the time Elza reached the showstopping aria "Non mir dir," an aria on whose shoals many sopranos have crashed and foundered, she had the audience in the palm of her hand. She also nailed the aria in one of the most amazing debuts in San Francisco Opera history.


Kat said...

Brava!!! Elza was indeed captivating--her voice was huge and clear and arresting. Thanks for filling us in on the "summer of passion" commencement passions.

Eric said...

I'm planning on seeing Don G and am very much looking forward to the "Non mi dir" -- what a sublime aria. But, no Commendatore statue in the graveyard?? How did that work out? Also, what specifically was confused about the Act 1 Finale?

Thanks again for the great review. I brought up your blog this morning, hoping I would be able to read about Don Giovanni, and sure enough, here it is :)

sfmike said...

Dear eric: There's a statue in the graveyard but it's just that, a statue, and they have the Commendatore's voice piped in from backstage, which rather takes the supernatural scariness/fun out of the whole scene.

And the first act finale is really a bitch to stage since there's so much going on musically and dramatically, with the pit orchestra playing one tune and the onstage orchestra (here sitting in the side boxes) playing another, with dancers coming in and out among the three Masked Party Crashers, and the Don in the middle of his seduction/rape of Zerlina. If you don't know the opera ahead of time, there's no way you would have understood what was supposed to be going on.