An Authentic, Chilling 'Don Giovanni' in San Diego


Straightforward but inspired, conventional but probing, San Diego Opera's new production of Mozart's "Don Giovanni," which opened Saturday night, excites through simplicity.

With conductor Leopold Hager's firm musical command in the pit, and Michael Hampe's clear and uncluttered stage direction, the exact requirements of composer and librettist are well served.

This is no easy task, as generations of gimmicky, updated "Giovannis" attest. But it is the way to the core of the opera's finale: punishment for the unrepentant libertine and new, better lives for his victims.

In Hampe's production, created for Germany's Cologne Opera, this cautionary tale speaks best at its climactic conclusion, when the statue carries Don Giovanni, not down to hell, but out to the cosmos, where, the symbolism says, lie both hell and heaven. For once, the scene is scary, chilling and provocative, and the two singing actors, Ferruccio Furlanetto as the Don and Louis Lebherz as the Commendatore, make it believable.

The entire cast, for that matter, acts convincingly and sings well. Furlanetto is perhaps more threatening than charming, but that doesn't harm his credibility, and his singing is both resonant and unfazed.

Deborah Riedel, despite some alarming straight tones above the staff, handles the challenges of Donna Anna with beauty of tone and an easy technical compass. Jennifer Casey Cabot, an inconsistent Donna Elvira, produces many gorgeously sung moments and a striking characterization. Reinhard Dorn's faceted, resonant Leporello maintains the difficult balance between sympathy and comedy. Tenor Gregory Kunde sometimes sounded under the weather in the Civic Theatre opening on Saturday, yet contributed strongly to the acting ensemble.

And acting is a key word: Zerlina and Masetto, played by Eirian James and Michael Chioldi, make their characters real, sing like musicians, interact with each other and promise much for future roles. Lebherz's stoic Commendatore restored a Mozartean's belief that this is not a throwaway role. Certainly, whoever put this cast together--it was probably general director Ian Campbell--did so brilliantly.

Most brilliant is the musical leadership of Hager: aggressive but unpushy, detailed but unfussy, gloriously songful. The solid orchestra, as well as the singers, gave him an untroubled opening night.

* "Don Giovanni," San Diego Opera, Civic Theatre, 202 C St., San Diego, Tuesday and April 12 at 7 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. $31 to $118. (619) 570-1100.

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