In Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s “Don Giovanni,” the title character deceives and abandons all the women he seduces, leaving them to suffer his cruel betrayals. In a production presented by Light Opera of New Jersey at the Sieminski Theater in Basking Ridge, Feb. 24 and 26, director Stefanos Koroneos of the New York-based opera company Teatro Grattacielo gave them all agency. It was an amusing, progressive, high-concept production in the style of Spanish film director Pedro Almodóvar.
I attended the Feb. 26 show, which was sold out. LONJ executive director Jason Tramm led a dozen musicians from the musical theater company’s chamber orchestra in a clean, attentive performance, with eloquent strings and diligent woodwinds. Minor cuts to the score trimmed some repeats and arias such as Don Ottavio’s “Dalla sua pace” and the “Questo è il fin” morality ensemble.
Mozart’s 1787 opera buffa in two acts is legendary for its beautiful music as well as its compelling story (by librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte) that seamlessly combines comedy and tragedy. It’s a morality tale inspired by the Spanish legend of Don Juan, the hedonistic seducer of nobility brought to justice by his victims.
Stagings of the opera have shifted over the decades to reflect societal trends. Giovanni used to be routinely portrayed as an affable hyper-masculine rogue and his womanizing behavior was pardoned. But in this modern era of the #MeToo movement, he is branded a toxic predator — an upper-class narcissist who uses his status and power with no regard for laws and social norms.
The opera begins with Giovanni’s sexual assault of Donna Anna. Giovanni kills Anna’s father, the Commandatore, after he comes to her rescue. Anna swears vengeance with her fiancé, Don Ottavio. Meanwhile, Donna Elvira, one of Giovanni’s former conquests who still loves him, discovers she’s just a number through Giovanni’s servant, Leoporello.
Giovanni’s next conquest is the peasant Zerlina on her wedding day to fiancé Masetto. Retribution finally comes in a graveyard when Giovanni invites the Commandatore’s statue to dinner. He arrives and drags Giovanni down to Hell.
Koroneos updated the original setting from mid-18th century Seville to Madrid in the early 1990s, contemporaneous to Almodóvar’s 1988 Spanish black comedy “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.” Thematically, “Women on the Verge” hits all of Don Giovanni’s beats of seduction, murder, deceit and vengeance. Both stories take place in beautiful, seamless, stylistic worlds where men behave badly and abandon women at whim.
Almodóvar’s iconography inspired the garish colors, glossy decors and Spanish kitsch of Tasos Protopsaltou’s original set and costume designs. Men wore colorful cardigans over business casual in maximalist cuts. Glamorous women wore power suits and tight, bright cocktail dresses with tulle, lamé, rhinestones and platform stilettos.
The work — produced by Teatro Grattacielo, at which Koroneos is artistic and general director — premiered in 2022 at the Apollon Theater in Syros, Greece.
In a director’s statement, Koroneos cited influences from his youth such as Madonna, Duran Duran, Spanish Queer activist Miss Shangay Lily and Cuban-American bolero singer La Lupe. La Lupe’s vibrant Latin soul tracks of “Puro Teatro” and “Quizás, Quizás, Quizás” were inventively mixed into the Zerlina-Masetto wedding music, with Elvira performing “Puro Teatro” karaoke-style.
Just like in “Women on the Verge,” the staging existed in its own suspended space, evocative of a glass cube as an illusion of Giovanni’s party penthouse. Ensemblists were suspended in time, onstage throughout the entire performance. They sat listlessly on couches covered in graphic Mondrian fabric, reading glossy magazines.
Koroneos also tapped into Almodóvar’s dark and scandalous humor. In a lamé dress and towering stilettos, ensemble soprano Natasha Scheuble chewed gum, mixed cocktails for guests and wielded Giovanni’s golden gun, a tribute to the James Bond film “The Man With the Golden Gun.” Nobility was stripped away in the Commendatore’s grotesque, ignoble death. He was stabbed by Giovanni and his corpse was left onstage during the first act as a gag for singers to stumble over and prod, as if he were a passed-out party guest.
The film’s spiked gazpacho made a prominent cameo as a running gag, first with Zerlina and Giovanni mixing it up from a stocked bar cart during the “Là ci darem la mano” duet. Then Leoporello offered it to the masked trio (Elvira, Anna and Ottavio), even substituting “gazpacho” in the libretto. And finally, Giovanni’s climatic death came from a poisoned bottle of gazpacho, proffered by Rick Agster’s Commendatore.
Narrative tweaks gave strength and intelligence to Giovanni’s tormented women with characterizations falling somewhere between Molière’s Don Juan and Almodóvar’s film. Anna, Elvira and Zerlina all had take-charge, no-nonsense personalities. Koroneos’ liberties turned Mozart’s dramma giocoso into something closer to verismo.
Soprano Lisa Algozzini’s Donna Elvira was the closest approximation of Carmen Maura’s captivating performance as Pepa in the “Women on the Verge.” Her character coped with her loneliness, torment and abandonment with pills and martinis. Pink neon sculptures of Picasso-like bulls represented her distress with an incandescent “Ah, chi mi dice mai.” She sang “Ah, fuggi il traditor” and “Mi tradì” with flexible phrasing and resonant warmth.
Victoria Cannizzo’s soprano was steady and stately, nailing the complex passagework and emotion in “Crudele? … Non mi dir” with a voice well-suited to Mozart’s heroines, and offering a full-blooded “Or sai chi l’onore.” Her stage language was rooted in an elegant Italianate style that gave her character the dignified nobility it required. Tenor Diego Valdez, singing Anna’s fiancé Don Ottavio, played him as a boring but sweet gentleman of noble bearing and used a pleasant middle voice in “Il mio tesoro.”
Courtney San Martin gave Zerlina an aggressive kick as a pushy but charming bride who almost made Giovanni look submissive in comparison. Glimpses of sweetness came through “Batti, batti o bel Masetto” and “Vedrai carino.” Zerlina and Patrick Scully’s Masetto were far from naïve, slow-witted peasants. Scully was pitch-perfect as the vindictive fiancé with naturalistic acting and a burnished, expressive bass.
Giovanni’s duality as a murderer and rapist is more convincing when he is portrayed as a charming, calculating aristocrat. Baritone Suchan Kim gave that, plus swagger, but little breeding. It created ambiguity and fluidity in social status and shifted his master-servant dynamic with Leoporello into something more like frat brothers. Kim’s “Là ci darem la mano” duet and “Deh, vieni alla finestra” serenade showed off his luminous, resonant tonality.
Energetic bass baritone Tyler Putnam used great comedic timing for Leoporello’s imposter serenade with Elvira. His “Madamina, il catalogo è questo” was blithely easygoing and his recitatives were emotive and colorful, fully enhancing his character.
For more on Light Opera of New Jersey, visit lightoperaofnewjersey.org.
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I find it appalling that this reviewer gives the director of this production credit for the progressive artistic choices of Da Ponte and Mozart. Don Giovanni has always been dragged down to hell at the end of this opera for his sins. He was never pardoned by anyone. Since it’s premiere in the late 1700’s it’s been a cautionary tale against Giovanni’s womanizing ways.