Schrott's a wicked `Giovanni'

Cast's acting shines a brighter than some singing

April 03, 2003|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Wickedness," the ever-quotable Oscar Wilde wrote, "is a myth invented by good people to account for the curious attractiveness of others." That certainly applies to the legend of Don Juan, especially as brought to life operatically by Mozart in Don Giovanni. A thoroughly wicked fellow, to be sure, this shameless sex addict, but awfully appealing, too. Even some of his conquests can't get over the spell he casts.

No wonder the Victorians (and some pre- and post-Victorians) had trouble dealing with this opera, which spends more time building up the "curious attractiveness" of the villain than on dispensing his just desserts. The Washington Opera's diverting new production of Don Giovanni tries hard to remind the audience of the libertine's evil, but you may still come away thinking that hell will be a surprisingly entertaining place with this Don on the guest list.

That's partly because Erwin Schrott has so much fun strutting his stuff in the title role. On Monday night at Constitution Hall, the bass had the tall-dark-handsome-Latin-lover thing down pat; Antonio Banderas couldn't have done it much better. But it wasn't just a matter of torrid skirt-chasing. This guy was interesting just getting his hair washed onstage by his trusty servant. Or throwing a plate of food at said servant in a petulant fit. Or skewering an apple, kabob-style, on his sword and licking the blade afterward.

Schrott's voice didn't quite match the highly strung persona he generated. The sound was limited in color, depth and warmth. The "Serenade" was practically barked out, with all sorts of odd blips in the dynamics disturbing the melodic line. But the singing certainly did the job well enough - sometimes very well - while the acting never lost its bite.

Although Robert Pomakov's Leporello could have used greater vocal presence, the nimble baritone put lots of character into every line and every bit of stage action. He delivered the "Catalog Aria" with winning nuance. Natalia Ushakova, as Donna Anna, compensated for a shrill-on-top, otherwise pale tone with astute phrasing and persuasive acting. Tatiana Pavlovskaya, as Donna Elvira, had problems in the upper reaches, too, but produced vocal fireworks; she was a telling actress. Irina Mataeva's creamy voice and charming style enlivened the role of Zerlina.

Daniil Shtoda made Don Ottavio seem even more wimpy than usual, especially at the end of Act 1, when his defiance of Don Giovanni was reduced to brandishing the handle of a pistol from a safe distance. (He showed more pique later, when he threw a bunch of flowers at Donna Anna.) His thin, nasal tone failed to fill out the music, and a tendency to insert little sobs into phrases didn't help, but he produced some eloquent effects in a long-breathed Il mio tesoro. Feodor Kuznetzov delivered the Commendatore's lines in a good-sized bass and managed to keep from falling over when he made his statuesque entrance at Giovanni's palace on some sort of stilts. Hung Yun was the mostly effective Masetto.

Placido Domingo's conducting often lacked tension and propulsion (the first act felt quite draggy), and wasn't always able to keep everyone together. He provided abundant sensitivity, however, and drew expressive playing from the orchestra.

Director John Pascoe also designed the sets and much of the elegant costuming, providing constant visual activity. Giant, movable columns and doors at one end of the stage were balanced by a huge parchment on the other. Still and video projections (designed by John Boesche) generated lots of atmosphere and some clever complements to the text, as when the names of Don Giovanni's female conquests scrolled by on the parchment/screen.

A cathedral procession, complete with prelates and a flagellant, was but one of the fanciful touches. Another involved Don Giovanni's victims, ghostly women and children who appeared live and on film (and, in one film loop, were seen starting to make the sign of the cross - over and over and over).

There was activity before the performance began - the projection of a scene-setting text onto that huge parchment ("the blazing heat of pan-fried Seville" and Don Giovanni's "passion-slick thighs" were among the over-ripe phrases). That excess was easily forgotten when the opera started. But when Domingo appeared on the screen, during the overture and during the closing measures, as if this were an arena concert, the effect was simply tacky.

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