Music critic and journalist
     Cheryl North :: Reviews

Berkeley Opera Performance of Don Giovanni

Review of the performance published February 22, 2010 in papers of the Bay Area News Group.

By Cheryl North

Berkeley Opera's done it again. Its new production, Mozart's Don Giovanni, under the direction its new co-artistic director, Mark Streshinsky, in its new venue, the recently finished 600-seat El Cerrito High School Theater, is an artistic coup.

The production's utter faithfulness to the music, coupled with a dazzling creativity in interpreting the psychology and spirit of the opera, merit high praise. Streshinsky certainly achieved his stated goal: "to keep things simple for our first venture into this new theater, and to explore this dark drama and hysterical comedy from a human standpoint, stripped of all its trappings."

Admittedly, there were a few flaws. The new venue's expansive stage could have used a bit of imaginative color and a few more props to assuage its barren appearance. The costumes, intended to represent "modern dress" bordered on tawdry. The generally stark lighting made the ample bare human flesh look too pasty,

But all of these critiques are a bit extraneous when measured with its overall successes - especially among the cast members. Baritone Eugene Brancoveanu was nothing short of sensational in the title role of Don Giovanni, the arrogant nobleman-seducer. He used his huskily virile baritone, athleticism, and virtuoso acting skills to create a quintessential cad. Facial expressions, body language, and grinding rock-star hips all filled out his characterization. Nonetheless, none of these elements overwhelmed his deeply perceptive musicality.

Baritone Igor Vieira sang a wonderfully wry Leporello, while soprano Kaileen Miller created a fine, commitment-shy Donna Anna. Tenor Michael Desnoyers was convincing as Anna's ever-faithful, but ineffectual fiance, Don Ottavio. Soprano Aimee Puentes portrayed an appropriately neurotic, semi-hysterical Donna Elvira; and soprano Elyse Nakajima, a beautiful, flirtatious Zerlina (Stephanie Kupfer will sing the part for the Feb. 26 and 28 performances.) The role of Zerlina's country bumpkin fiance was well acted and sung by William O'Neill. Bass James Grainger was a regally daunting Commendatore.

The orchestra, conducted by Alexander Katsman, and the involved onstage chorus were collectively very good. Overall acting and stage movement merited A grades.

But, true to Berkeley Opera's reputation, it was the production's thoughtful insights and gleeful wit that added a special pizzazz to the whole. Several examples of these qualities were related to the clever Supertitle translations and occasional ad libs interpolated into the sung 18th century Italian text. In one case, as the Supertitle translation projected "four gold pieces," (Giovanni's offer to mollify his servant Leporello's angry threat to quit), Giovanni actually sang, "Mastercard."

Another particularly clever bit of wit was Leporello's use of a Smart Phone that evoked giant onstage projections of Google maps marking the locales of Don Giovanni's thousands of seductions as an accompaniment to his famous "Catalogue" aria, "Madamina, il catalogo e questo." These were followed with projections of female images lifted from the palettes of Leonardo, Renoir, Monet, Degas, and even Whistler's mother.

One of the very best parts of the production were Jeremy Knight's artful projection designs depicting the cemetery and the "marble" statue of Giovanni's victim, the murdered Commendatore, looming out of the entrance of his tomb. Equally evocative were the leaping, licking flames that swallowed the arrogant, unrepentent Don Giovanni into Hell. Pity that Knight's skills were not used more extensively to enhance the otherwise stark stage.

. . . . . . . . .