Opera Columbus Returns With Magical, Magnetic Don Giovanni
After a year of tending the flame with crucial streaming and online content, Opera Columbus roars back to life with a trimmed-down and vibrant take on Mozart’s masterpiece (with libretto by Lorenzo Da Ponte) Don Giovanni.
I was lucky enough to see the last dress rehearsal of this, one of my favorite operas. The production, directed by Eve Summer, keeps all the blast furnace intensity and marvelous, twisted beauty that’s kept audiences captivated for over 200 years.
The episodic nature of the story and that it revolves around seven principal characters makes Don Giovanni an ideal first shot out of the cannon and especially suited to the well-executed safety measures put in place. Spread out and only seated within our own parties in COSI’s cavernous Gallery 2, easily visible surtitles on a series of screens and a brilliant sound mix (apologies that I don’t see the sound person’s name in my program), as well as a high stage made the action pop.
That sound blended the cast, arrayed on stage in clear boxes that looked like sound baffles – courtesy of Columbus Children’s Theatre – with a subset of the Promusica Chamber Orchestra behind them. This put an extra burden on the stage managers (Danielle Ranno and Meghan Crawford) and I want to take a moment to call out their diligence in making this marvelous performance work as seamlessly as it did.
The brilliant cast, under Summer’s direction, made the most of those boxes. Implying a distinct heat, and the fury of a very physical production raging against these almost invisible constraints. Jorell Williams’ Don Giovanni seducing Zerlina (Aryssa Leigh Burrs), against the walls of their respective boxes, and a knife fight between Giovanni and Commendatore (a dazzling Christopher Humbert Jr.) from three boxes away were two examples of the action rippling with uncanny electricity.
Summer and her cast made the most out of the thematic charge of those boxes, as well – the story of Don Giovanni leads to a hell of his own making. They amplify the deep loneliness of the libertine and his victims and the teeth-gnashing frustration of attempts at revenge and forgiveness.
One of the great strengths of Mozart’s operatic writing is a sharp sense of dialogue – the arias are good, but the piece takes fire when the roiling passions of these characters overlap and steamroll one another in sparkling, barbed harmonies. The cast excels at these sequences.
A marvelous triptych/bit of verbal trench warfare between Donna Elvira (an exquisite Amber Monroe) and Giovanni with Leporello (Carl DuPont) in the middle left my jaw in my lap. The gut-wrenching confession/vow of revenge between Donna Anna (Megan Kasanders) and Don Ottavio (Victor Cardamone) and the parallel argument between Zerlina and Masetto (Miguel Perdoza) are some of the finest operatic acting I’ve ever seen, using the limitations of the staging to heighten the mood.
The small orchestra arrangement by Jonathan Lyness (of Mid Wales Opera) also amplifies the surging emotion and highlights the beauty and pain in the writing under Kelly Kuo’s expert conduction, along with crucial harmonies from members of the Gay Men’s Chorus. An ominous harpsichord created a gravitational pull for glinting strings at one moment and sluiced through dark cellos and timpani the next. With the additional padding stripped away, the audience feels and sees the key parts of the Mozart.
The subject matter hasn’t aged well – the digital program opens with a content warning about the recounting of sexual assault and numbers for the National Sexual Assault Hotline, Ohio Domestic Violence Network, and Sexual Assault Response Network of Cental Ohio – and one of the highlights of the production is that it neither whitewashes not shies away from its ugliness. It balances a knowing, contemporary lens with grounding the characters in their time and place in a way I marveled at.
Having been 14 months since I’d been inside a theater, the longest stretch since I was 16, it was probably not unlikely I’d cry anyway. But it’s hard for me to imagine a better return to live performance than this dazzling Don Giovanni.
Don Giovanni runs for two performances at COSI (333 W. Broad St.), 7:30 p.m. on April 30 and 2 p.m. on May 2. For tickets and more info, please visit operacolumbus.org/dongiovanni.
All photos by Terry Gilliam