'Opera in the Outfield' to feature WNO's 'Don Giovanni'

Opera 'free for all' Saturday, Sept. 29, at Nationals Park. Review, details. Photo: Washington Nationals

WASHINGTON, September 27, 2012 – The Washington National Opera’s meticulously crafted production of Don Giovanni now playing at the Kennedy Center’s Opera House through October 13 makes use of the company’s dark, spooky 2007 sets while giving this production an entirely different and lighter feel. The singing and acting performances in WNO’s 2012 edition of Mozart’s classic opera are livelier, brighter, funnier, and more inventive than their counterparts in 2007.

And that’s a good thing, too. This Saturday’s performance will be simulcast in HD to the giant screen at Washington Nationals Park, courtesy of the M&Ms-sponsored “Opera in the Outfield” program, which brings live opera to the public each fall free of charge. The opera is sung in Italian, but no problem—English translations will appear on the screen. As always, this is a family event. Stadium gates will open at 5 p.m. in the afternoon of September 29 for various “pre-game” activities.

Don Giovanni (Ildar Abdrazakov) dances with the disguised Donna Elvira (Meagan Miller). (All photos credit: Scott Suchman.)

Saturday’s warm-up activities at the stadium will include flamenco dancing performances by Furia Flamenca; stage-fighting demos hosted by Robb Hunter, the fight master for this production of Don Giovanni; a “Fly Ball” party in the park’s posh Stars and Stripes club sponsored by WNO’s “MyTix” program and geared toward 18-30 year olds and members of the U.S. Military; a personal appearance by M&M’s popular TV character, Miss Brown; a jumbo screening of Warner Brothers’ classic cartoon opera spoof on Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle, “What’s Opera Doc?” It stars Elmer Fudd as Wotan and that Oscar-winning wabbit, Bugs Bunny as…Brünnhilde?

At the Nationals Park simulcast, there will also be other activities and features, including a chance to win prizes. Again, admission is free, but you’ll need to register in advance if you want to be eligible for a variety of prize drawings, including one that will win you tickets to opening night of WNO’s first-ever performance of the classic musical Show Boat next May. (That show will also be simulcast next year). Otherwise, you can just walk in to Nationals Park without a reservation.

BYO food and beverages are okay to bring to the park with the exception of adult beverages. However, concessions will be available in the park itself.

For other rules and regulations on what you can and can’t bring, check this extensive link. For more info on Nationals Park, click here. For more info on WNO’s “Opera in the Outfield” itself, click here.

And while we’re here, let’s get back to that actual production we saw late last week at the Kennedy Center and fill you in on the details.

Giovanni (Ildar Abdrazakov) still seems to have a thing for Donna Elvira (Meagan Miller).

For those not familiar with Don Giovanni, the key thing to remember before the curtain goes up is this: “Don Giovanni” is the Italian name for the legendary character otherwise known as “Don Juan,” the legendary, wealthy 17th century rake and womanizer who left hundreds—no, thousands—of female conquests from all social classes in his considerable wake. The material is racy. But by modern standards, Mozart’s 1787 opera is only mildly PG. Plus, Lorenzo da Ponte’s storyline and libretto for the composer manages to add a moral ending to the tale, so that even if things don’t quite end happily ever after, they do end properly, preserving the family values of Mozart’s day at least.

Don Giovanni is an odd combination of farce, comedy, and tragedy. The opera opens with the Don murdering the father of a woman he’s attempted to take by force—an act that literally comes back to haunt him in the end. But for most of the opera, the Don and his manservant-sidekick Leporello lead the townspeople on a merry chase as this evil nobleman continues to stack up conquests even as he’s being pursued.

Mozart’s opera is not all about the guys, however. Also given central roles are Donna Anna, scandalized in the opening scene; Donna Elvira, a decent woman seduced and abandoned by Giovanni but still in love with him; and the ditzy peasant girl Zerlina, who falls for the Don’s seductive words before he even gets a chance to turn on the charm, driving her long-suffering fiancé Masetto to the point of madness.

Bass Ildar Abdrazakov—who sang the role of Leporello in WNO’s 2007 production—turned in a convincing performance as Don Giovanni, portraying the Don as a happy-go-lucky, bipolar psychopath, instinctively charming on the outside, but ready to kill an opponent or abandon a current love in the twinkling of an eye. Mr. Abdrazakov’s instrument is clear and authoritative, his timing and delivery superb.

The Commendatore’s statue (Soloman Howard) confronts Giovanni, who thought his enemy was really dead.

Mr. Abdrazakov’s best scenes in this production were his intense, mercurial interactions with his servant and lower class BFF Leporello, sung and acted with matter-of-fact comic perfection by bass-baritone Andrew Foster-Williams. Mr. Foster-Williams’ vivid, over-the-top interplay with his boss gives this production exactly the light, comic touch that it needs to leaven the more serious moments.

Director John Pascoe, who also designed the sets and costumes for this production, emphasized his female characters in his 2007 iteration of the opera. This time, he seems to have focused more on the partnership between Giovanni and Leporello, which brings this pair back to the central roles for which they were intended.

With the exception of the implacable Donna Anna, who’s out for revenge, the current production’s female characters are portrayed this time as somewhat more gullible and a bit too quick to forgive.

Soprano Meagan Miller sang the role of Donna Anna with haughty passion, almost biting off some of her sung lines as she radiates fury and vengeance toward her father, the Commendatore’s murderer.

Soprano Barbara Frittoli brings a surprising fragility to her role as the much-wronged Donna Elvira, the classic example of a woman who thinks she can reform a recidivist. Elvira is most often characterized as a woman scorned who, like Donna Anna, is bent on revenge. But Ms. Frittoli’s Elvira is a trusting soul who’s willing to give the Don multiple chances at salvation. As a result, Ms. Frittoli tailors the role into a more nuanced vehicle better suited to her warm, lyric instrument.

The Commendatore (Soloman Howard) and unearthly sprites prepare a warm welcome for Don Giovanni.

Soprano Veronica Cangemi’s portrayal of Zerlina reminds us, oddly enough, of Oklahoma! ingénue Ado Annie and her “can’t help myself” attitude toward the opposite sex. About to be married to Masetto (Aleksey Bogdanov), Ms. Cangemi’s Zerlina is more than willing to chuck it all for the first Don Giovanni who wanders in. The singer’s light, lyric, but silvery-clear voice is a delight to hear and adds its own interesting texture to Mozart’s ensemble moments.

Tenor Juan Francisco Gatell is a bit overshadowed by the remaining cast in the somewhat ungrateful role of Don Ottavio, the ardent fiancé who’s left to play second fiddle to Donna Anna’s quest for vengeance. Yet when he was liberated to sing on his own, he unveiled a supple, sweet, bel canto style instrument that surprised and impressed last Thursday’s audience. Baritone Aleksey Bogdanov served as the jolly, amusing foil for assaults from the Don, Leporello, and his own fiancée Zerlina alike, again adding welcome lightness to this rather dark production.

Finally, in the small but key role of the Commendatore (and later his ghost) young Domingo-Cafritz bass Solomon Howard’s large and commanding voice lent authenticity and vengeance to the opera’s complex finale.

As opposed to the 2007 production, our problems with this one are minor. Again, the sets are awfully solemn and dark, but the singers this time around lighten things up on stage providing the perfect antidote. Additionally, why the needless addition of that newborn infant cradled by Donna Elvira? Obviously meant to be hers by Giovanni, its appearance is as gratuitous as the addition of the unscripted young Elizabeth in WNO’s production of Anna Bolena, still playing at the Opera House in rotation with Giovanni. Elvira’s character generates sympathy and pathos enough without the extra hint.

But these are minor quarrels in an otherwise delightful, highly musical performance, which, by the way, was considerably enhanced by the playing of the WNO Orchestra under the expert baton of Philippe Augin. This seemed like an entirely different orchestra from the one we heard fumbling parts of Anna Bolena, although in fairness, they have encountered Mozart’s score before. That said, the orchestra seems to be playing as well for M. Augin as they once did for former music director Heinz Fricke, and that’s a big plus for this production of Don Giovanni.

Rating: *** (Three stars)

For tickets and information on Don Giovanni, visit WNO’s Kennedy Center web site. For more information on “Opera in the Outfield,” click the links in the article above.


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Terry Ponick

Now writing on investing, politics, music, and theater for the Washington Times Communities, Terry was the longtime music and culture critic for the Washington Times (1994-2009). 

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