Encore Michigan

MOT’s ‘Don Giovanni’ taps into modern sex in unexpected ways

Review October 21, 2019 David Kiley

DETROIT–Enduring operas achieve that status because their composers and writers tapped into something common to humanity—whether the available conveyance is a horse and cart or a Lamborghini; the beverage of choice a glass of mead or a bottle of Cristal. When an 18th century opera feels current, that’s a success.

And so it feels watching Michigan Opera Theatre’s current production of Don Giovanni, which performs October 23rd, 25th and 27th, after its opening this past weekend.

Don Giovanni remains a popular opera in the U.S. and abroad, with some directors clearly taking it on in order to showcase and explore our modern sensibilities about male domination and promiscuity in an age of Tinder and Match.com, but also the #metoo movement.

The opera was commissioned, and at a time when plays and musicals about the the great lover, Don Juan, were popular. Historians say there is evidence that another great iconic lover, Giacomo Casanova, assisted in the writing, no doubt to lend some insight on what it was like to have slept with more than 2,000 women as Don Giovanni is purported to have done in the story.

In this story, set in mid-18th century Spain, this Don is also a sadistic manipulator, cold-blooded villain and scoundrel. The story follows Don Giovanni (Daniel Okulitch) as he deceives his way into the hearts of women and taunts the men who love them. When an attempted conquest ends in murder, Giovanni receives a ghostly visitor who delivers retribution.

The seminal event at the start of the story is this: Leporello (Matthew Burns), servant to Don Giovanni, keeps watch outside the Commendatore’s (Ricardo Lugo) home at night. Suddenly, the Commendatore’s daughter, Donna Anna (Ellie Dehn), rushes out, struggling with the masked Giovanni and followed by her father. The Commendatore challenges Giovanni to a duel and is killed, but Giovanni and Leporello escape. Then, Anna asks her fiancé, Don Ottavio (Geoffrey Agpalo), to avenge her father’s death.

The next morning, Giovanni and Leporello encounter one of Giovanni’s former conquests, Donna Elvira (Nicole Cabell), who is devastated by his betrayal. Leporello tells her she is neither the first nor the last woman to fall victim to Giovanni and shows her his catalogue, sung in his aria, with the name of every woman Giovanni has seduced.

In today’s context, this opera has some squirmy moments, like when Don grabs the crotch of Elvira. It’s jarring. But it is a part of the story. It’s good to remember that while it is hard to watch for some, it is just part of the story and designed to be provocative and make us think. By including it in the direction, it does not mean that the director or MOT is saying that behavior if okay. In the opera world, or the theatre world for that matter, art is doomed if every cringe-worthy act on stage is seen as approval.

Mr. Okulitch plays his part with plenty of aplomb. This Don does not discriminate among the classes for his conquests—nobility or servants, it does not matter. He exhibits a creepy sense of entitlement over other people usually reserved for say…presidents. And his baritone was seamless and firmly rooted. Mr. Burns Leporello, written brilliantly by Mozart to be wise and world-weary, as well as comically put upon, delivered on his character and singing to great achievement, stealing many scenes.

Both Ms. Dehn and Ms. Cabell acquit themselves wonderfully, their soprano voices shaped by musical director Christopher Allen and themselves for their respective characters: the wounded and betrayed Donna Anna, and former conquest, noblewoman Donna Elvira, who still holds on to hope that she is special… until she is shown otherwise. This has become a signature role for Cabell as she has played it all over the world.

Don Giovanni has depth and layers and some of Mozart’s (and Shakespeare’s) classic devices, such as characters pretending to be other people with a few changes of costume. And despite its heavy overall theme, and even some moments of downright squeamishness over the abject misogyny, there are laughs throughout, especially via The Leporello. One can’t escape what a musical triumph the story is.

That a nearly 250 year old opera can make us think about our world, and our social/political environment today is also a triumph of storytelling not to be missed.

Single tickets are still on sale for the remaining performances.

Week of 11/18/2019

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