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'Don Giovanni' Returns!

Florentine Opera revisits its acclaimed production of Mozart’s classic

Mar. 7, 2017
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As the Florentine Opera’s General Director William Florescu points out, “The Florentines have not performed Don Giovanni for 11 years and now, with a superlative cast assembled, Milwaukee audiences can look forward to a real treat with a revival of the widely acclaimed 2006 production.”   

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s sardonically delightful, tongue-in-cheek sense of wayward amorality has delighted audiences for two centuries with its wry, understated sarcasm. But is Don Giovanni a comedy? It begins with a killing. Don Giovanni stabs the Commendatore after trying to rape his daughter, Donna Anna, who then remains vengeful and distraught for most of the opera—much to the despair of her long-time fiancé, Don Ottavio, who does not believe in long engagements. He poignantly expresses his frustration with the lovely aria “O Mio Tesoro” while Donna Anna pleads for more patience in her lovely aria “Non Mir Dir.” 

Not to be outdone is Donna Elvira, one of the Don’s rejects who still loves him while having no illusions about his character. She expresses her displeasure in a series of dramatic musical encounters which give the opera a new lilt, counterpointing Mozart's ravishing, beautifully integrated score with a series of memorable arias. The musical momentum is unflagging, pausing only for the mandatory recitative. Of course, the lynchpin defining the tenor of the score is Giovanni’s hapless manservant Leporello, sung this time by South African baritone Musa Ngqungwana, who bravely endures and sometimes obfuscates his master’s ongoing shenanigans. His hilarious catalogue aria gleefully lists Giovanni’s conquests—1,003 in Spain alone. This production highlights the talents of three notable black performers, Ngungwana, Ariana Douglas as Zerlina and Leroy Y Davis as Masetto. Donna Anna and Don Ottavio are sung by Emily Birsan and Brian Stucki in their Florentine debuts. Alexander Dobson also debuts with the company as the irascible Don.

Gloriously indifferent to the opera’s shenanigans, the title character continues his pursuit of sexual conquests, trying to seduce the engaged peasant girl Zerlina in the memorable, familiar duet “Là Ci Darem la Mano.” He beats up her fiancé, Masetto. Giovanni blithely ignores the Commentator’s warnings of divine retribution from the grave, invites the apparition to supper, mocking all efforts at repentance and literally goes to hell.

The irony of Mozart’s masterwork is that audiences are not convinced that such dire punishment should be forthcoming. Mozart’s tongue-in-cheek moral ambiguity tantalizingly implies that the Don’s charming nonchalance, his distinguishing trademark, does not require such melodramatic damnation.

Is Don Giovanni a comedy or a drama? As Florescu wryly says, “It’s a drama that’s not that serious or a comedy that’s not that funny. By and large it’s a fantasy with a ghost rising from below—Giovanni is an allegory not always touching upon reality.”

This production, including sets, costumes and lighting, was designed by the Florentine in 2006, and has travelled around the country. The element of fantasy in the Florentine production reminds one of surrealistic modernists such as René Magritte with floating windows and crescent-shaped forced perspective giving this presentation a uniquely imaginative bent.

Florescu has always cited Mozart as a favorite composer, but adds, “I love all of the Mozart operas, but I might place Figaro with its more contemporary outlook above if not next to Giovanni. Everything that happens on the stage is reflected in the music. Great music and great characterization form the basis of great opera. A great score is as essential as a compelling libretto, and the great Mozart operas owe their long-lasting appeal to this essential unity.” 

Milwaukee resident Emily Fons will sing the challenging role of Donna Elvira. Fons was one of the finalists in the nationwide Metropolitan Opera editions in 2006 and has sung in New York, at the Chicago Lyric, and in Santa Fe. This is the first appearance with the Florentines for the Bay View resident. Her views on the spiky role of Elvira are refreshingly perceptive. “Elvira is the real superhero of the opera,” she says. “She encounters the other characters who have been abused by Giovanni. She has seen the mayhem he creates and she has no illusions about who he is.” Having been herself involved with the Don, Elvira’s music is a combination of anger and regret over her past relationship. Fons adds, “The music is very high tessitura and challenging to sing, unusual even for Mozart, but it characterizes a lady who had no illusions about her own feelings or about what the others have endured. The beauty of the score carries all before it.” 

The Florentine Opera performs Don Giovanni, March 17 and March 19, at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts, 929 N. Water St. For more information visit florentineopera.org

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