Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Don G as Diabolical Coke-Sniffing Priest

Mozart’s Don Giovanni
Venture Opera
November 9, 2015
Angel Orensanz Center
Lower East Side, Manhattan

Don G's hellish descent
Photo credit: Ken Howard
You never know in NYC. I thought I was going to see yet another Don Giovanni for the sake of supporting a new indie opera company, but the moment I arrived at the Lower East Side venue, a synagogue turned arts center, something was off: bouncers carded me at the door. Seriously? It’s opera! Amidst what is generally a predominantly geriatric crowd there is no risk of public under drinking age, ever! The clubby aura got even more exclusive once we got in: rows of gold pleated bamboo chairs packed mostly with young professionals (on a Tuesday night!), ladies in ball gowns and venetian masks pacing around as in a trance, a fully stocked bar pumping out mixed drinks. But, it also felt like stepping back to the 1800s, with superbly decadent gothic architectural details, massive gold chandeliers, musicians peeking out from behind red velvet curtains and a first floor wrap around balcony, the space was the most perfect (and immersive) setting for a Don Giovanni. I was definitely excited, and the moment the excellent orchestra led by Ryan McAdams attacked the first notes of the overture, I felt a frisson all over my body - we were off to a great start.

Voi star dentro con la bella
Photo credit: Ken Howard
I did not have time to read the director’s notes in the program so I was caught off guard by the radically unusual take of this production. My scribbly notes on the opening scene go like this: “Catholic ecclesiastical setting. Is Don G a priest?!? And he is stabbing the Commendatore with a crucifix!!” Indeed, Don Giovanni made his first grandiose appearance in the guise of a diabolical Catholic priest. Turns out director Edwin Cahill’s production is set to explore “the theme of corruption of power with Don Giovanni as a leader of the Catholic Church.” And the inspiration for this pretty unusual idea seems to be in the real lives of Tirso de Molina (author of the first Don Juan) and Lorenzo Da Ponte (librettist of the Mozart opera) that were intertwined with the paradoxes and excesses of the Catholic Church. De Molina was a Jew who converted to Catholicism to protect his family from the Spanish Inquisition and became an ordained priest, while Da Ponte, coincidentally also a converted Jew and a Catholic priest, lead a dissolute life and was accused of public concubinage and abduction of respectable women.

Don G officiating some rites
Photo credit: Ken Howard
Cahill’s take on Mozart’s opera opens with the ghost of Tirso de Molina summoning, during the overture, the phantom souls of the Don Giovanni characters who then proceed to “sing the greatest story of divine retribution” (or so the program notes tell us). And so, in this setting, Don Giovanni is a renegade dissolute priest (Da Ponte’s alter ego?), at the center of a number of more or less plausible satirical vignettes: his attempted rape of Donna Anna happens under a church altar, during the Madamina il catalogo e’ questo aria a bunch of nuns of all shapes and sizes pop out to represent the Don’s conquests, at the end of the Champagne aria he sprinkles the public with holy water, the Commendatore statue thundering Pentiti! (Repent!) has a Jesus-like appearance and so on. While this interpretation was at times a bit of a stretch, having Don G. be a priest was a propelling force on the magnitude of his excesses (in Act III, the piatto saporito contains multiple lines of cocaine), resulting in a perversely unsettling yet addictive effect from one scene to the other.

Sta a veder che il malandrino
Mi fara' precipitar
Photo credit: Ken Howard
Charismatic and intense, baritone Philip Cutlip embodied the title character with a devilish energy that carried and made the show. Sporting red patent leather pants, a disheveled priest collar, red latex finger gloves and a combed back mohawk, Cutlip was every inch a dangerous and powerful but somehow irresistible villain. His singing was consistently strong throughout the opera yet never swooningly seductive (as can happen with more lyric baritones) but, rather, with a brutal Mephistophelic edge – this Don Giovanni gets his way more by force than by charm. Bass-baritone Eric Downs had great stage presence as Don G’s sidekick Leporello and possibly the singer who interacted most with the public, particularly in his rants against his master.

Soprano Amy Shoremount-Obra as Donna Anna was the vocal highlight of the evening. No surprise since she already had her Met debut (last year in Die Zauberflote). Her sound was crystal clear, soaring and electrifying, particularly in Or sai chi l’onore, when Donna Anna demands vengeance for her sullied honor. Mezzo Cecelia Hall was an excellent Zerlina, seductive and coquette yet sweet and loving too, a true pleasure to hear. Mezzo Marquita Raley embodied an uber-furious and clingy Donna Elvira, at times forcing her hand a bit too much, however coming out really strong and lyrical, with the right balance between heartache and hope in her rendition of Mi tradi’ quell’alma ingrata.
 Venite pure avanti / vezzose mascherine
Photo credit: Ken Howard
Venture Opera, led by its general director Jonathon Thierer, delivered superb quality curated to the last detail, setting the bar pretty high for an indie company (or any company for that matter). New crazy ideas, a tight convincing cast with exciting peaks (Don G, Donna Anna, Zerlina), a great use of an extraordinary space, and an electrifying orchestra were the ingredients of a sexy, irreverent yet highly polished show. No detail was small enough: effective costumes (Brandon McDonald), sophisticated lighting design (Yael Lubetzky), thoughtful props and the additional layer of the Tirso de Molina back story (that came up in overture and at in the finale) were all perfectly executed. This company has access to good money and knows how to put it to great use – looks like they had ads running in Times Square and the Orensanz Center is a most coveted wedding and corporate event space in lower Manhattan.

In its twitter account @ventureopera presents itself “a new opera company producing installation events around classical repertoire” which is yet another indication of their appeal for an audience beyond the traditional opera aficionados, as this Don G production clearly showed. They have a similar formula to LoftOpera in making opera “cool” and targeting audiences under 40. Where LoftOpera is Brooklyn hipster though (public sitting on the floor sipping beers), Venture Opera is Manhattan exclusive (gold pleated chairs, mixed drinks in calices). Even the after party was pretty wild: right after curtain call the space was cleared of all chairs, a fancy deejay started pumping out dance music and an acrobat popped up doing impressive tricks with a neon-lit hula hoop. Again, not what you see at the end of your average opera show on a Tuesday (or any day). Next up in Venture Opera’s season are Carmen and Pagliacci on February and August 2016, respectively and we cannot wait to see how they tackle these. Rumor has it that the Pagliacci production will team up with an honest to goodness itinerant circus and its acrobats….

- Lei & Lui

The Orensanz Center
Photo credit: Allegri con Fuoco

O statua gentilissima del Gran Commendatore
Photo credit: Ken Howard

1 comment:

  1. No mention of Yujoong Kim? I thought he presented the often rather limp Don Ottavio with more fire and understanding than usual.