Turn of the Screwer: Opera Theatre whips out Don Giovanni

May 26, 2011 at 4:00 am

May has been a tough month for sexual miscreants. The world's most feared terrorist was reduced to Osama bin Wankin', the brawny former governor of California was exposed as the Sperminator, and the head of the International Monetary Fund turned political metaphor on its head: Rather than figuratively rape the African continent, as the Fund has been accused of doing for decades, he went and got himself indicted for physically raping an African.

Perhaps it's appropriate, then, that Opera Theatre of Saint Louis opened its 2011 season Saturday night with an enigmatic and disconcerting performance of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's enigmatic and disconcerting opera, Don Giovanni.

"Don Giovanni" is Italian for Don Juan, a character first popularized in The Seducer of Seville, a Spanish play written in 1630. In 1787, looking to follow up their hit, The Marriage of Figaro, Mozart and librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte chose the lascivious Don Juan. The subject was a natural for Da Ponte, a notorious gambler, drinker and womanizer. (He was a protégé of legendary libertine Casanova, who's believed to have helped write the libretto.)

As was typical for the pair, Mozart and Da Ponte were writing right up to the last minute. On opening night the ink was still wet on the orchestration for the overture, which Mozart had finished only hours before. In his autobiography Da Ponte describes writing the libretto with his inkwell flanked by a box of cocaine and a bottle of Tokay wine, interrupted only by dalliances with his landlord's teenage daughter, "...when my inspiration began to waver." That may have had something to do with the schizophrenic nature of this opera.

The composer calls Don Giovanni an opera buffa, but it's unlike any other comic opera. Giovanni is a sociopath and sexual predator who uses people (women especially) with no regard for consequences or morals. The time frame is the last day of his life: In an attempt to cover up a rape, he has committed a murder, and time's running out on him. But don't be tempted to think of this opera as American Psycho with music. Scenes of Giovanni's ruthless manipulations are bookended (and occasionally interrupted) by hilarious farce. The effect is jarring. One has the feeling of watching two operas, one a tragic drama and the other an all-out comedy, that have been thrown into a scriptwriter's Cuisinart.

Co-directors James Robinson and Michael Shell have made some choices that add to the production's split personality. Costumes range from stylized eighteenth-century peasant garb to 1950s nudie-mag camp to Don Giovanni in leather trench coat and Frank Sinatra-style trilby. Though this isn't uncommon in 21st-century productions of Don G, it piles on an additional ragged edge.

What holds OTSL's production together is the music. Don Giovanni's score is, in a word, perfect. Mozart nestles shimmering arias between what might be the most gorgeous multivoice music ever composed. OTSL performances rely on strong casts that can sing together and support one another's voices, and Don Giovanni capitalizes beautifully on the company's strengths. Conductor and Mozart expert Jane Glover is spot-on in supporting the singers and punctuating the drama.

As Elvira, sparkling soprano Kishani Jayasinghe commands the stage. Levi Hernandez wraps a buttery baritone and fine comic sensibility around the part of Leporello. The best comic turns are pulled off by Bradley Smoak and his effortlessly elegant bass voice as the peasant, Masetto. Kathryn Leemhuis as Masetto's fiancée Zerlina, baritone Elliot Madore as Giovanni and tenor David Portillo as Ottavio bring fine voices to the most difficult and disjointedly written characters. Andrew Gangestad exhibits his authoritative bass as the Commendatore. Together in various combinations, they are spectacular, weaving exquisite tapestries from Mozart's elegantly wrought score.

If for some reason you're tempted to tote your grade schooler to see Don Giovanni, you might want to rethink that. The production features significant nudity (male) and beaucoup rolling around. Giovanni's final debauch, in particular, looks like The Rocky Horror Picture Show as depicted by Hieronymus Bosch.