By Leslie Kandell
July 29, 2009
LENOX, Mass. -- Tanglewood Music Center fellows, who offered three bubbly, persuasive performances of "Don Giovanni" earlier this week, spend the summer studying in the Berkshires at the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and its Music Director James Levine. Meticulously selected young artists in their 20s, they arrive with career experience, knowing their roles from memory.
The program note for Levine, who has been conducting the performances (I saw it on July 26), mentions toward the end that he is "also Music Director of the Metropolitan Opera." Certainly he has made a fertile connection between his two positions. Importing Met coaches to work with the fellows, he uses Music Center faculty to prepare the orchestra and casts singers from the Met's Young Artist program; in this case, he brought in big-voiced bass Morris Robinson, a Sarastro at the Met, to be the Commendatore. The stage director is Ira Siff, a voice teacher known to Met broadcast listeners as guest commentator and to New Yorkers as the faded diva caricature, Mme. Vera Galupe-Borszkh.
Levine adores Mozart -- last week's Tanglewood program was the three final symphonies -- and has thought deeply, for years, about what's eating these characters. He delves addictively into the meaning of any repeat sign, or finds a key change that wordlessly uncovers a lie. For this performance, he ran ten rehearsals and spent hours at the piano coaching soloists. The end result showed his clarity of thought, as did the orchestral concerts.
In addition to offering some stunning coloratura, the young singers made the action lively and convincing. Lithe enough to leap over someone on their way offstage, they ran, fought, kneeled, carried women and fooled around sexually (plenty of that with Elizabeth Reiter as Zerlina and Michael Weyandt as Masetto). Donna Elvira (Devon Guthrie) ran in a dirty wedding gown, plopped down to shake dirt from her shoes and obsessively quizzed passersby if they'd seen Don Giovanni. (They recoiled and bolted.) When the Don (Elliot Madore) changed clothes with Leporello (Evan Hughes), he added a loose-limbed impression of the servant's hapless gestures. (How much coaching did that take?)
Costumes and sets by Eduardo Sicangco of New York City Opera were a mixed bag. Don Giovanni was good in leather pants and open shirt. Petite Zerlina -- Reiter's sweet, penetrating voice is one of several to keep an eye on -- had on a 1950's cutesy teenager dress. Donna Anna (Layla Claire) was a black-clad Don Carlo-type Spanish lady, Leporello wore rags and a Panama hat. The curtain was made from horizontal wooden slats, rising to reveal Spanish-shaped buildings on a revolving set. A harpsichord continuo on one side of the Theater-Concert Hall stage accompanied the crystal-clear recitatives. Above it, and also on the other side, were screens for Dennis Helmrich's witty English translation. In ensemble numbers, the singers' texts were projected separately. Members of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus served as extras.
Mozart and librettist DaPonte interweave no fewer than eight major characters with a juggler's skill. But talk about messy motivations (which Levine does often). Everyone needs Don Giovanni as a point man so they can vent the outrage he fuels. He breathes life into them, as he does into the action when he's onstage -- without him the wind is gone from their sails. Not addressing Donna Anna, Ottavio sings "Il Mio Tesoro" to Donna Elvira, who at first seems comic but becomes less so. And why does Elvira keep running after the Don -- how much can she like him? (To herself she sings, "What a conflict of emotions.") Why does he seduce every woman he meets: is he deliberately courting punishment?
Donna Anna and Don Ottavio (the masculine-voiced Mark Van Arsdale) parallel Zerlina and Masetto: The girls' professed hatred of the Don is clearly ambivalent, and as he draws them, they must keep wooing their fiancéés back. After all her outbursts, Donna Anna does not avenge the death of her father, the Commendatore; he avenges it himself, entering in a puff of smoke to grasp the unrepentant Don's hand and pull him down to hell.
After the final sextet, one imagines that nothing much happens: Donna Anna begins her problematic healing while Ottavio waits around, Elvira goes to a convent, Zerlina and Masetto go to bed and Leporello will look for a job. Without Don, life is dull.
The Overture was on the small, thin side, the way the original probably sounded. But Levine, in the pit with the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra, is all about balance of orchestra and voice, and that, even in the rain, was a work of art. Michael Steinberg, who died this week, contributed a substantive, articulate program essay, "The Essence of Mozart."
Through July 29.