Last Night: Mozart's Don Giovanni at Cowell Theater

Categories: Last Night

Thumbnail image for SFLO Don Ottavio (2).jpg
Don Ottavio

Mozart's Don Giovanni
Friday, Jan. 30, 2009
Cowell Theater, Fort Mason
Review by Emily Hilligoss

Better than: Pretty much any romantic comedy, as those usually lack a revenge plot and fiery death. Pity the opera's run ends before Valentine's Day.

Those who subscribe to the stereotype of opera as aloof, inaccessible, and expensive owe it to themselves to visit the San Francisco Lyric Opera at Cowell Theater in Fort Mason. I partly take back "inaccessible" -- finding the place at night in time for the show can make you feel like a contestant on The Amazing Race, but if you arrive late and befuddled enough, an obliging staffer in a three-cornered hat might offer to drive you the length of the pier in a golf cart, right up to the auditorium doors.

The theater is an unusually intimate venue for opera, a feature that this production exploits beautifully. It's hard to imagine sight gags involving Don Giovanni's accordion-sized list of lovers coming off as effectively from Row Z in the upper balcony. Nor would the smashing final scene, in which the unrepentant Don gets dragged off to hell by a horde of red-lit hobgoblins, pack the kind of visceral punch that it did on Friday night -- sinner, you better get ready, because but for the intervening orchestra pit, you'd be next. Speaking of the orchestra -- masterfully led by 34-year-old Barnaby Palmer -- its visibility and proximity to the audience was especially serendipitous for this work, as there are a couple of scenes in which it is featured in the libretto, becoming particularly intrinsic to the plot unfolding onstage.

First performed in Prague in 1787, Don Giovanni has it all, plot-wise -- murder, attempted rape, seduction, betrayal, revenge, plenty of comic relief, and a particularly noteworthy intermingling of the upper and lower crusts of society. While not without its ludicrous moments, mostly courtesy of the Don's assiduous pursuit of tail, the story is much more organic and easy to follow than, say, Mozart's earlier Idomeneo, which the San Francisco Opera performed last October. Some of the music may be familiar to anyone with a passing acquaintance with Mozart's oeuvre, with the first act in particular being a veritable hit parade.

The vocal performances from the cast range from capable to near-virtuosic. An especially pleasant surprise was Ashley Faatoalia in the generally thankless role of Don Ottavio, lover of the high-strung Donna Anna (sung by Duana Demus Leslie) and something of a pompous, uptight tool. This was the first time I actually looked forward to Don Ottavio's solo moments, thanks to Faatoalia's soaring tenor and warm stage presence.

Kali Wilson makes a doughty, endearing Donna Elvira, Don Giovanni's jilted (and, in this production, heavily pregnant) ex-lover. As the Don himself, Eugene Brancoveanu is chock-full of unrepentant rakishness. At the other end of the social-class spectrum, Razvan Georgescu as Don Giovanni's beleaguered servant Leporello makes the most of the opera's best lines, and Krista Wigle and Igor Vieira are an appealing pair as Zerlina and Masetto, the peasant bride and groom who find themselves caught up in Giovanni's feckless intrigue. Stick around after the final curtain for a chance to mingle with the performers -- and the unusual opportunity to see Don Ottavio rocking a 49ers jacket.

Critic's Notebook

Personal bias: C'mon, who doesn't entertain fantasies of douchebaggy ex-lovers getting dragged off to hell?

Random detail: At the Cowell Theater, practically every seat is an orchestra seat. I could even see the oboe player swabbing the spittle out of his instrument during a break in the music.

By the way: Final performance is Sunday, Feb. 1, at 2 p.m. In Italian, with occasionally dodgy English supertitles. (Sorry, but "non son' più forte" just doesn't translate as "I must be stronger!")

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