Marry an 18th century opera to contemporary theatrical effects, and you’ve got the version of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” with which Opera New Jersey opened its 2010 season on Sunday, July 11, at McCarter Theater. As the overture opens world class womanizer Don Giovanni wanders on stage. His outlook, in his own words is, “If you are faithful to one [woman] you are cruel to all the others.”
Giovanni views a projection the height of the entire stage listing the names of classic beauties: Helen, Nefertiti, Cleopatra, and Esther, among others. Stepping behind the screen, the Don (Andrew Garland) engages, one-by-one, a series of shapely women, whom he literally casts aside. His servant, Leporello (Matt Boehler), stacks up the bodies.
The climax of the opera comes as a full stage-height projection of the vengeful face of the dead Commendatore (Young-Bok Kim) envelops the stage and dwarfs the figures of the Don and his servant. Giovanni has killed the Commendatore after ravishing his daughter, Donna Anna (Jennifer Black). The Commendatore reappears as a statue whom Don Giovanni and Leporello invite to dinner.
The giant projection of the Commendatore’s face is ghostly. Minions of hell writhe on stage, illuminated by flames and strobe lights. Irresistible forces suck Don Giovanni downwards. The death that stage director John Hoomes arranged for Don Giovanni is compelling both dramatically and visually. The scene would have been more effective if the mouth of the giant face moved in sync with the words sung by the Commendatore’s statue.
This opera has a moral: Evil must be punished. The work concludes with the singing of the moral by all the remaining principals: Leporello; Donna Anna; Ottavio, the fiance of Donna Anna (Steven Sanders); Donna Elvira, the forgiving admirer of Don Giovanni (Laquita Mitchell); and the peasant couple, Masetto (David Cushing) and Zerlina (Abigail Nims).
On the journey to the moral, Mozart has showered us with tuneful music, festive spectacle, and comic encounters. An enthusiastic audience welcomed the performance. English supertitles translate the sung Italian.
Joel Revzen conducts instrumentalists drawn from the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra. Revzen is associated with Arizona Opera, the company to which Opera New Jersey’s founders, Scott and Lisa Altman, have gone. A two-manual harpsichord closely accompanies the recitatives. A cello solo enhances the duet between Masetto and Zerlina. The design team consists of Carey Wong, sets; Patricia A. Hibbert, costumes, and Barry Steele, lighting and video projections.
My favorite performers were Abigail Nims and Matt Boehler. Nims’ Zerlina is musically clear, impeccably in tune, and emotionally convincing. Boehler’s Leporello is a complex character whose desire to be a gentleman and no longer a servant was endearing because of his intrinsic dignity and his lack of gentlemanly qualities.
Scenes detailing the wedding of Masetto and Zerlina add a light touch to what is often an emotionally wrenching story, despite the ebullience of Mozart’s music.
Comic effects are built in by casting a very tall Leporello (Boehler) as servant to a rather short Don Giovanni (Garland) as master. Particularly amusing iss the scene where they exchange clothing and pretend to be each other.
Aside from their difference in stature, Hoomes invents another laughing matter. He portrays the reluctant Leporello, disguised as Don Giovanni, as unable to make appropriate ardent gestures. Don Giovanni’s coaching of his servant brought mirth to the audience.
Don Giovanni, Opera New Jersey, McCarter Theater. Saturday, July 24, 8 p.m., and Sunday, August 1, 2 p.m. 609-258-2787 or www.opera-nj.org.