A Journey Through Madison's Classical Music Scene
Mar 22, 2012
06:49 AM
Classically Speaking

Sweating It Out: University Opera’s Don Giovanni Has More Than the Usual Sizzle

Sweating It Out: University Opera’s Don Giovanni Has More Than the Usual Sizzle

The Music Hall was packed Tuesday night for the closing performance of University Opera’s production of Don Giovanni. The opera ends with the titular anti-hero being dragged into hell; for this performance the ambient temperature in the building immediately made us all feel as though we were all already in the underworld.

But this is no criticism, merely a statement of fact. If anything, the young and effective cast, the orchestra under James Smith and all the other participants are to be admired all the more for turning in a consistently worthy effort — stellar at times — under such conditions.

Mozart is arguably the greatest composer of operas, and one could further postulate that “Giovanni” is the greatest he penned. The work itself has turned up the heat on many a more experienced company than our local campus denizens. Mozart dubbed the work a “dramma giocoso,” or “playful drama.” How’s this for play: the first scene consists of an attempted rape and a virtually cold-blooded murder of an elderly nobleman. You can’t play that for laughs.

Yes, the work has both an uneasy sensibility and when it works it leaves us uneasy long before the legendary lover gets his eternal comeuppance. But few singers possess the necessary vocal artistry for Mozart’s sublime arias and ensembles and the subtle acting demands, and many directors get lost in the shifting subtleties of Giovanni and his array of would-be and once-was lovers. Happily, director William Farlow struck a keen balance among the varied, and often overlapping, emotional dynamics.

If the recent record stretch of weather has led to much unprecedented early appearance of flowers around town, it proved an apt metaphor for a number of the principal singers. Chief among the promising bloomers of the vocal variety is John Arnold, who from his first entrance as Giovanni’s servant, Leporello, poured out his rich bass-baritone with ease. Michael Roemer played the insatiable Don with a studied nonchalance, but more importantly, also sang with depth and warmth.

Among the ladies, Lindsay Sessing was a precisely modulated Donna Anna, and Shannon Prickett a powerful Donna Elvira. Prickett never backed down from her big high notes, often commanding them as confidently as a handful of intensely soft notes. The area where both these sopranos should grow is in finding a wider middle ground for dynamics and a few more tints and hues in their instruments. Zerlina and Masetto, the betrothed peasants who are harangued together and individually almost from the moment Giovanni runs across them, came to life courtesy of Ariana Douglas and Benjamin Li. Douglas in particular displays a voice of great promise, and the two shared an affable and natural chemistry.

Daniel O’Dea was the ever-patient (and ever-waffling) Don Ottavio, who first dithers over whether Anna’s account of sexual assault on her, and murder of her father were actually committed by Giovanni, and ultimately acts the reluctant would-be avenger. His aria late in the first act proved his most effective demonstration of a free and confident lyricism. Benjamin Schultz had the unenviable role of the quickly slain Commendatore (although of course he returns at the very end as the statue-who-came-to-dinner). At both ends of the masterpiece, Schultz provided both the die-if-I-must father, and the messenger of doom with power.

Perhaps the most telling aspect of the night however was a collective one: The principal characters all delivered their recitatives with real inflection and understanding of the text. Too often these “sung dialogue” passages are tossed off as though they were patter song lyrics in search of an aria, punctuated by harpsichord flourishes. But Farlow’s singers really got it right most of the time, and if cast and audience felt as though they melted in the March swelter, a good part of that was the result of convincing artistry, not the weather.

Photo: Michael Roemer and John Arnold, courtesy of University Opera.

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About This Blog

Years before I contributed my first classical review to the Los Angeles Times in 1988, I started a class in music appreciation for adults that had one aim: to put a few cracks in the “ivory tower elitism” I found pervasive in the classical music world since my boyhood days. Whether as a critic, program annotator or band director, that goal has never changed. After all, Mozart and Beethoven and the gang wrote their music for people like you—not critics or professors!

After growing up in the suburbs of New York City, and spending twenty years in and around Los Angeles, the last twelve years here leave me more amazed than ever at the musical riches of Madison. I’m a cheerleader at heart, because I always think more people would become classical fans if they’d give it a chance—but I’m also quick to tell you when you’re not getting your money’s worth. Classically Speaking brings you as much news and as many reviews as possible, and I hope you’ll join me for a fabulous musical journey.

–  Greg Hettmansberger
Follow Greg on Twitter @ghettmansberger

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