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DON’ BEDEVILLED: Lyric Opera production of Mozart classic falters

A well-oiled operatic production relies on the convergence of so many elements that it seems a miracle when it actually does all come together. The Lyric Opera of Kansas City was thrown a curve-ball recently when the singer contracted to sing the title role of Don Giovanni pulled out because of illness. Less than two weeks before opening, the company rushed in a replacement who luckily was a veteran of the role. That being said, judging from the opening performance on April 24 at the Lyric Theatre, baritone Christopher Schildenbrand was not enough to rescue the show, which was one of the messiest things the Lyric has mounted in recent memory. Nor can his late arrival fully explain the failure of this production to mesh either dramatically or musically.

Stage director Ellen Douglas Schlaefer had worked out a great deal of detail with the characters whose activities around Giovanni make logic (or not) of his licentious behavior. Brenda Harris as Donna Anna was affecting in her Act 1 description of the Don’s attack of her in her room: You could feel her ambivalence toward the situation, as she quasi-rebuffed her betrothed, Don Ottavio, with subtle body-language. (“Once you’ve had Giovanni, nothing else is worth your money”?) Her singing was full of pathos and fire in the big “Or sai chi l’onore” aria, but despite piquant pianissimos the voice was often rough-hewn, especially in the upper range. Still, hers was the only voice large enough to be heard consistently over the orchestra, and it dominated vocal ensembles where she was pitted with voices that were, on the whole, on the small side.

Christine Abraham fared better vocally as Donna Elvira, with a voice of refinement and taste that, however, often fell into orchestral oblivion in its lower register. She was lovely in the coloratura passages at the opening of Act 2, and her “Mi tradì” exhibited fine vocalism despite somewhat overplayed histrionics. Her reactions to the Don’s dalliances throughout were a disconcerting (if perhaps not entirely inappropriate) mixture of dismay, bemusement and horror. During Leporello’s “Catalog Aria,” she thumbed through the volumes of conquest herself (a nice touch), reacting in such a variety of ways that I found myself wishing she’d settle on one.

Chad Johnson as Don Ottavio, fitted with an unfortunately womanish-looking wig, had flashes of vocal conquest but struggled for pitch and control, especially in Act 1. He used a surprising amount of head voice in “Dalle sua pace,” but by Act 2 had opened up to a warmer sound. Andrew Gangestad as Leporello was an audience favorite for his comic displays, which were excessive much of the time but quite funny in the Act 2 scene where he mimed the Don singing “Deh vieni alla finestra.” He had a devilish time staying with the orchestra — a shortcoming in which he was not alone — but at his best he showed himself capable of producing a beautiful, honest sound. Robert McNichols, Jr. as Masetto and Sarah Burke as Zerlina threw themselves gamely into their roles, though in both cases the vocal production suffered when they became too engaged in their acting. Burke was affecting in her “Vedrai, carino,” though McNichols’ facial expressions gave the aria an unseemly hue. Andrew Harris, admirably made up at the end to look like a statue, sang the Commendatore with a firm, craggy bass that struggled with pitch.

At the center of this maelstrom was Schaldenbrand, who played the Don as a suave, light-weight womanizer that only a Sunday School teacher would call really evil. At the beginning of Act 2 he declares, completely devoid of irony, that it is his duty to love all women. His looks and handsomely detailed costumes by Howard Kaplan made him always feel like the center of attention, despite flowing locks that reminded me of Ricky Martin during his early days on General Hospital. He was clearly comfortable in the role, and his rich bronze baritone was as seductive as his ease onstage. But his portrayal rarely felt integrated into the dramatic whole, and his singing tended to emphasize individual notes over a sense of lyricism — almost to the point where one despaired of hearing a single line sung so that it sounded like a melody.

Few of the lead singers, with the exception of Abraham, showed a strong enough sense of pulse to achieve forward-motion, and the resulting poor ensemble among singers, and between singers and orchestra, sapped much of the energy from Mozart’s trippingly vibrant rhythms. Just as one had the sense of a rushed stage production in which not enough time was available to really make the drama convincing, one yearned for more polish and attention to detail in the musical element as well.

 

Paul Horsley, Performing Arts Editor 

Paul studied piano and musicology at WSU and Cornell University. He also earned a degree in journalism, because writing about the arts in order to inspire others to partake in them was always his first love. After earning a PhD from Cornell, he became Program Annotator for the Philadelphia Orchestra, where he learned firsthand the challenges that non profits face. He moved to KC to join the then-thriving Arts Desk at The Kansas City Star, but in 2008 he happily accepted a post at The Independent. Paul contributes to national publications, including Dance Magazine, Symphony, Musical America, and The New York Times, and has conducted scholarly research in Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic (the latter on a Fulbright Fellowship). He also taught musicology at Cornell, LSU and Park University.

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