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This review by Nicole Plett was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on June 30, 1999.

Review: `Don Giovanni’

If we recognize a classic work of art for its capacity

to speak to us across the centuries, then there is much to recognize

in Mozart’s "Don Giovanni," first performed in 1787, and now

being given a classically resonant production by the Opera Festival

of New Jersey.

This mythic story of a powerful nobleman endowed with enormous charisma

and insatiable sexual appetites dates back to the 1600s. Yet when

Juliana Rambaldi, as the conflicted Donna Elvira, rages in her Act

II aria against her warring impulses to both adore Don Giovanni and

avenge his gross disloyalty to her, we immediately recognize Hillary’s

(or is it our nation’s?) song. There comes a shock of recognition

in the impulse of opera theater, then and now, to tackle the big issues

of morality and justice.

Director Francis Cullinan succeeds in making this "Don Giovanni"

both modern and classic by setting the Mozart and da Ponte masterwork

in Goya’s Spain of the same era — the site of some 1,003 of Don

Giovanni’s seductions. With sets, props, and glorious costumes that

stay true to their era, these production trappings successfully transcend

their moment. With a pungent rendering of Goya’s "Sleep of Reason"

as an epigraph on the outer curtain, the choice makes for a visually

rich production with no scene more lovely than the little-seen chorus

decked out in full Spanish country regalia — a banquet of yellow,

gold, ocher, and brown skirts, aprons, vests, and velvet knee breeches.

Hitting a theatrical high note is the pairing of Victor Benedetti

as Don Giovanni and Eduardo Chama as Leporello. Although it seems

initially that Chama’s brilliant comic facility as Leporello will

upstage Benedetti’s stately, seductive Don Giovanni, as the work builds

to its climax, Benedetti draws on his dramatic reserves to produce

romantically disheveled yet searing final-act encounter with the ghost

of the murdered Commendatore.

Ward Holmquist conducts the work that embraces so many of Mozart’s

brilliant arias — from Donna Anna’s (Diane Alexander) fierce Act

I aria of vengeance to Zerlina’s (Yvonne Gonzales) most astonishing

"Strike me, strike me" plea to her beloved Masetto. Add to

this, Don Ottavio’s exquisite romantic solos, beautifully rendered

in a clear tenor by Brian Nedvin, and the many glorious and well-balanced

five and seven-voice ensembles.

As a regional organization that is growing year by year along with

its audience, the Opera Festival of New Jersey does not offer us here

individually mature stars to interpret Mozart’s well-known score with

some of the emotional depths we might wish for. It is not an occasion

for heart-stopping performances. Yet this meticulously rendered production

has virtues of cohesion, care, and timeliness that make it an monumental

asset to the arts life of our community.

— Nicole Plett

Don Giovanni, Opera Festival of New Jersey, McCarter

Theater, University Place, 609-683-8000. $22 to $70. Continues Saturday,

July 3, and Friday, July 9, at 8 p.m.

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