MYS Oregon to Iberia

Over-the-top: Aquilon Festival’s ‘Don Giovanni’

The warhorse-at-a-winery production featured students from the festival’s Young Artists Showcase–and a last minute replacement.

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Nyla Thomas as Donna Elvira and Fengyue Zheng as Leporello in Aquilon Festival's production of "Don Giovanni." Photo by Alexis Silver.
Nyla Thomas as Donna Elvira and Fengyue Zhang as Leporello in Aquilon Festival’s production of “Don Giovanni.” Photo by Alexis Silver.

ST. PAUL, Ore. – The best thing, if unfortunate, that occurred during W.A. Mozart’s well-worn Don Giovanni July 21 at Lady Hill Winery, was a student singer’s laryngitis.

It meant that Aquilon director/baritone Anton Belov had to step up and perform the role of the legendary Don Giovanni, the cad with the charm and endurance to seduce thousands of women, coupled with a streak venomous enough to kill off a man or two.

The Moscow-born Belov has a booming velvety voice and well-heeled acting chops. Though he spends most of his time as a music professor at Linfield College, where the 6-year-old Aquilon program is centered, he is a natural onstage. His past is studded with first-place vocal-competition awards and advanced degrees from Juilliard and Boston University. For Aquilon, he has successfully recruited such seasoned opera standouts as Richard Zeller, Elizabeth Blancke-Biggs and Chelsey Geeting as voice teachers, and found the globally accomplished Michael Recchiuti, who conducted the 20-piece opera orchestra composed of professional musicians from around Oregon. (Read more about the production in Gabe Braukman’s preview here).

Aquilon Festival Anton Belov as Don Giovanni. Photo by Alexis Silver.
Aquilon Festival Anton Belov as Don Giovanni. Photo by Alexis Silver.

Belov had to cram for the role in the final three-hour production (and he warmly admitted some mistakes) that wound up Aquilon’s season of intensive singing, acting and movement workshops for up-and-coming opera singers in Aquilon’s Young Artists Showcase. The cast, besides Belov, was made up of the students in the summer training program. All are at different stages of their careers and education – most pursuing graduate musical studies and a few with some performances and awards under their belts – so judging most of the voices would be premature. It’s apparent, though, that these dedicated students have potential and desire to join the high-pressure opera world. Throughout the four-day opera run July 19-22, roles were switched up and singers had a chance to try out different parts. Some pulled off their roles with aplomb; everyone tried hard.

Another fortunate coincidence on July 21 was Fengyue Zhang’s portrayal of Leporello as the Don’s faithful and highly observant, and eventually critical, servant. He eventually tells his boss that he is leading a rotten life.

Fengyue Zheng as Leporello in Aquilon Festival's production of "Don Giovanni." Photo by Alexis Silver.
Fengyue Zhang as Leporello in Aquilon Festival’s production of “Don Giovanni.” Photo by Alexis Silver.

Not only did the young singer have a terrific bass-baritone voice with superbly controlled projection, he and Belov played off of each other for laughs, digging themselves out of scrapes and making hilarious getaways and gaffes. (Originally Leporello was cast as a comic bass.) Considering that Don Giovannni is a major disruptor and several degrees worse than a petty criminal, shaping the opera comically was a a good idea–even if Don Giovanni is a sorry womanizer, whom Mozart and librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte make sure pays a heavy price in the end. Mozart did consider Don Giovanni an opera buffa. Still, the piece could be tweaked to go in many different emotional directions, especially with today’s #MeToo movement in high gear.

With no scenery other than Lady Hill’s spacious reception and tasting rooms’ stairways and balconies, the show made the most of fast-paced movement, keeping things going from different levels and entrances. Occasionally, an old dog ambled in and lay on the floor, and a black cat made an appearance. Wine glasses broke a couple of times, and the back row chatter rose and fell, but what the heck. This was an informal show, if the costumes were simplified period-style, on a 1,000-acre farm and winery playing to an enthusiastic local audience. About half of the 110-member crowd left at intermission. Not everyone who attends a show at a beautiful winery on a balmy night is an opera fan.

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Aquilon Festival's production of "Don Giovanni." Photo by Alexis Silver.
Aquilon Festival’s production of “Don Giovanni.” Photo by Alexis Silver.

Most opera-goers have heard Mozart’s inexhaustible warhorse in some form. Don Giovanni has been staged over and over for 236 years since it premiered in 1787 in Vienna. Companies from the Metropolitan Opera to high school choral clubs have sung it, or parts of it.

But it never gets old, even if the singers, in this case, were dutifully and enthusiastically practicing a demanding craft before hitting the big time. The opera brims with everything “operatic” – including gorgeous arias and lilting soaring melodies. It has violence, sex, comedy, complex class issues, relentless forward movement – the entire opera takes place within 24 hours. And, of course, it stars the Don himself, the oversexed narcissistic rake who has accumulated more than 2,000 sexual conquests according to a notebook assiduously kept by Leporello. That number is certainly over-the-top operatic, as was the huge effort involved in staging this mostly student opera at an Oregon winery. 

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Angela Allen writes about the arts, especially opera, jazz, chamber music, and photography. Since 1984, she has contributed regularly to online and print publications, including Oregon ArtsWatch, The Columbian, The San Diego Union-Tribune, Willamette Week, The Oregonian, among others. She teaches photography and creative writing to Oregon students, and in 2009, served as Fishtrap’s Eastern Oregon Writer-in-Residence. A published poet and photographer, she was elected to the Music Critics Association of North America’s executive board and is a recipient of an NEA-Columbia Journalism grant. She earned an M.A. in journalism from University of Oregon in 1984, and 30 years later received her MFA in Creative Writing/Poetry from Pacific Lutheran University. She lives in Portland with her scientist husband and often unwieldy garden. Contact Angela Allen through her website.

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One Response

  1. It is very inconsiderate to start an article by celebrating a young singer’s vocal injury. Yet this condescending tone is held throughout this piece. If you are so adamant that “ judging most of the voices would be premature,” one wonders why you would write an article about a young artists program in the first place, especially if in lieu of any feedback for the artists who have just performed for you, you snidely emphasize only that they are still learning and that their voices have yet to develop.

    This type of discouragement is the sort of thing that drives burnout among young singers, so if your aim is for opera to lose any of its remaining young fans and artists, never stop writing!

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