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David Pittsinger as Don Giovanni [Photo by Gaston de Cardenas courtesy of Florida Grand Opera]
21 May 2011

Don Giovanni, Florida Grand Opera

By Leporello’s count (in the “Catalogue aria”), Don Giovanni tallies over 2,000 sexual exploits.

W. A. Mozart: Don Giovanni

Don Giovanni: David Pittsinger; Donna Anna: Jacquelyn Wagner; Leporello: Tom Corbeil; Don Ottavio: Andrew Bidlack; The Commendatore: Morris Robinson; Donna Elvira: Georgia Jarman; Masetto: Jonathan G. Michie; Zerlina: Brittany Ann Renee Robinson. Florida Grand Opera. Conductor: Andrew Bisantz. Stage Director: John Pascoe. Set and Costume Designer: John Pascoe.

Above: David Pittsinger as Don Giovanni

All photos by Gaston de Cardenas courtesy of Florida Grand Opera

 

Whether such a thing is possible (Wilt Chamberlain notwithstanding) or not is for others to debate. The more interesting question might be who DaPonte and Mozart had in mind as they set to work on unmasking the Spanish grandee.

Early in the 17th century, a Spanish monk by the name Tirso de Molina wrote of a certain Don Juan more reprehensible than is probable and so much less than worthy that he is cast into fiery hell pits. Scores of offshoots (Moliere, Byron, E.T.A. Hoffman, Pushkin, and Kierkegaard count among those that succeeded with adaptations) came out of Molina’s Don and it is probable that this is the historical figure from which Mozart’s Don Giovanni is derived.

About a century later, there appears on the scene Giacomo Girolamo Casanova de Seingalt. You know him simply as Casanova. Mozart’s take on Giovanni so interested Casanova — and his station as a man that set off on serial dalliances was so established - that he was said to have approached (unsolicited) DaPonte to advise him on the libretto; he may have sat in on the opera’s premiere to wit. But Casanova’s reputation was not that of a true libertine. By his own admission in his 12 volume mega-autobiography L’histoire de mon vie, he was but a mild womanizer: he lists a paltry 122 escapades and often the sole faculty he required from a woman was good conversation.

It remains that DaPonte and Mozart shaped Giovanni as a composite of these men, adding a soupcon of super-physical feats here and inflating the drollness (in the spirit of dark comedy, or drama giocosa) driving his depravity there. From this, productions and directors have room to play with the degree of redeeming value left their Giovanni. Florida Grand Opera’s production seeks to bend the picture of Giovanni to make him a more sympathetic anti-hero, to explain his actions as a function of psychodynamics and therefore something all men must trespass through: commitment-phobia or its less severe cousin, proverbial cold-feet.

The festive ambiance in the air on April 16, opening night, was the likes of which are felt when things are on an upswing and that is where FGO finds itself in recent seasons. The company’s operatic high notes peaked in 2010 with exciting new productions, interesting new talent and efforts to reach out to the opera community at large (opera luminary Ira Siff is on hand and this is John Pascoe’s Giovanni). So, opera interest is heightened this month with this Giovanni production (courtesy Washington National Opera) and, in repertory, David DiChiera’s Cyrano showing through the end of the month.

BidlackWagnerMorris.pngOttavio and Anna (Bidlack and Wagner) by the fallen Commendatore (Robinson)

Before a single note played, the curtain rose to Giovanni (David Pittsinger) and the circling “ghost of girlfriends past” behind a soft screen — what resulted was a field-of-sight dark, smoky, hazy, and impressionistic — a feast for the eyes before other senses were tapped.

Pascoe’s sets (arid and rustic in flavor with corresponding studding and fittings on frames and doors), offset costumes (those of Masetto and Zerlina were especially decorative) and the wielding of revolvers gives the story extra personality and takes the audience to a Spain feeling the remnants of Ottoman influence. The final scene at Giovanni’s castle, with vault-like doors at the entrance, was another glance into Pascoe’s imagination: the Commendatore, forces of repent coursing through him, pulls Giovanni (and zaps a Leporello too close for comfort) in like a magnet. That strobe lights, so often a gimmicky excess, were trained at center of symmetrical doors had something to do with their effectiveness. Pascoe’s costumes were of gorgeously decorated heavy and reflective fabrics — in purples, blues, and blacks, embroidered and streaked in gold.

CorbeilJarman.pngLeporello (Corbeil) recounts of Giovanni's conquest to Elvira (Jarman) in the “Catalogue Aria”

Pittsinger mostly fulfilled his promise to “inhabit” Giovanni, stylizing his performance satisfyingly. Giovanni does some pretty daft to risqué things per Pascoe — urinating on the Commendatore’s statue, performing cunnulingus on one of the members of the band in the last act — and Pittsinger went at these gamely. All the fight scenes came off well, with special kudos due the swordplay and tug-of-war (Fighting Director Bruce Lecure and Choreographer Sara Erde — in her first assignment with FGO - collaborating) with Ottavio and friends (four in total). Giovanni’s music sits very well in Pittsinger’s voice; he shaded and modulated compellingly and, at times, beautifully — his “Deh, vieni” placed in the latter category.

By the sound of it, Tom Corbeil — whose voice is phonogenic — is likely to make the switch from Leporello to Giovanni not far down the road. Corbeil had fun with Leporello’s music and the Pee-Wee Herman hairdo (Wig and Makeup by Chris Diamantides) he sported was in keeping with his anxiety-stricken servant. The Donna Elvira of Georgia Jarman was as irritating to the Don as could be imagined; Pascoe put a tool in the hand of Elvira for that purpose — evidence of the grandee’s misdeeds and complicating Giovanni’s relationship to Elvira and the Commendatore. Elvira carries a swaddled infant throughout the opera. Jarman, in her first outing with FGO, sang a “Mi tradi” with potent force and some lovely spun high notes.

MorrisPittsingerCemetary.pngThe Commendatore (Morris Robinson) runs through Giovanni (David Pittsinger)

Morris Robinson is such a presence — he (and Pascoe) made the Commendatore a pivot point in this production. Right from the get go, he pulls out a pistol during the duel, grazing Giovanni on the arm (a wound that is hard to heal throughout the opera). Heard at other points in his career in other roles, Robinson’s voice is remembered for its sheer size; Mozart’s music exposes it as glorious.

In his arias, Andrew Bidlack (Don Ottavio) sang winning phrases with a pleasant sounding mid-section. As Ottavio’s betrothed Donna Anna, Jacqueline Wagner won the audience over with a strongly felt “Non mi dir.” The Masetto this evening, Jonathon G. Michie, exhibited exemplary acting, nonplussed and peeved as he was over his Zerlina’s infatuation for the Don. Brittany Ann Renee Robinson (Zerlina), in her FGO debut, was a distracted vixen with a light soprano that carried a light “Batti, batti.”

FGO resident conductor Andrew Bisantz — carrying an ultra-sensitive baton for vocalists this evening– and orchestra found their most select playing marks in the sweeping interplay of winds and strings. Caren Levine provided harpsichord continuo. FGO’s chorus (with John Keene as Chorus Master) did a fine job on all fronts — busy as they were in non-singing tasks (they riot across the stage to open the second act). Erde made things interesting for the minuet by turning the program into something of a dance school.

It’s hard to tell if Giovanni came off as more likable, or even more relatable, this time. This time, like most times, there is only one way to defrost Giovanni’s feet.

Robert Carreras

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