Weekend MusicWatch: A stripped-down Don, a beefed-up Mahler


Jason Hardy as Leporello, Daniel Okulitch as Don Giovanni and
Mary Dunleavy as Donna Elvira. © Portland Opera / Cory Weaver

“Don Giovanni,” Portland Opera,  November 2, 4, 8, 10, Keller Auditorium, Portland: “Turandot” set in an icy, Maoist netherworld. Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” with machine guns and vaguely Nazi-ish uniforms. A Handel opera with a business-suited emperor who looks a lot like Bill Clinton, and a paramour in a beret and stained blue dress.

Welcome to the alternative worlds of Regietheater. When theater and opera companies are afraid to stage new works — because they worry that their conservative core audience won’t take a chance on anything they don’t know already — they pour old wine in new bottles. Hence, the post World War II profusion of  “director’s  theater” (or opera), in which inventive stage directors wrap a classic in contemporary garb, trying to satisfy younger audiences craving for something new while not driving away those vital, hidebound season subscribers who, the staff believes, won’t countenance anything comfortingly familiar. (Considering the high cost of staging an opera, sometimes stratospheric ticket prices, and some barely listenable products of the bad old days of audience-unfriendly modernism, that choice sometimes made sense.) Sometimes the new contexts bring new insights; more often, they distort the original beyond what the creators might have recognized or approved. Sometimes both. The real question is whether the new staging works artistically.

Portland audiences will find out this weekend and next when director Christopher Alden brings his critically acclaimed, 2009 staging of Mozart and Lorenzo da Ponte’s magnificent “Don Giovanni” to the Portland Opera stage. From the minimal sets (chairs, mostly) and monochromatic palette, to the skimpy undergarments (the hunky male leads spend some time in their skivvies) and single-minded moral message, it’s stripped down in every way.

I attended most of a fully costumed and staged preview performance last week, and may not be able to make it to one of the actual performances for review, but I saw enough to get a good sense of the production’s style and sensibility. It may not be entirely to the taste of the most troglodytic traditionalists, but I think Portland Opera’s engrossing production will appeal to audiences attuned to contemporary psychology and the dark, fretsome spirit that pervades so much of today’s pop culture.

First, it’s still Mozart’s music — some of the greatest ever written — and da Ponte’s words, and the music making is first rate throughout. Three of the leads in the City Opera production, (bass baritone Daniel Okulitch, soprano Stefania Dovhan, bass Jason Hardy), brilliantly reprise their roles here. Despite marking his part, due to a cold, in the preview I saw, Okulitch exuded command in voice and acting, and Hardy was no less sensational. The female leads, although given less of a spotlight in the parts I saw, sounded similarly persuasive, and the orchestra, crisply conducted by new PO music director George Manahan, provided brisk and solid performances even in this run through.

Despite all the skin and simulated sex (the celebrated Act I finale can be characterized as a group grope, and the banquet scene draws a particularly racy parallel between carnal and gustatory gluttony), this isn’t a titillating take. Rather than a randy but occasionally lovable rake, the prototypical Don Juan is portrayed as a mostly mirthless, cynical sex addict, with his rationalizations for indulging in thousands of trysts (usually played for laughs) coming off instead as bitter sneers. His servant/sidekick Leperello is less comic foil than reluctant partner in crime. The women (at least in the parts I saw) are more acted upon than actors. When the rest of the cast isn’t in action, they often remain onstage, sometimes staring fixedly into the distance, sitting upright in their chairs like the ghosts of “Our Town.”

The makeup and intentionally flattened facial expressions occasionally reminded me a bit of the made-in-Portland animated film “Coraline,” or maybe moments in some Tim Burton films. As I wrote in Willamette Week, “With its intentionally harsh lighting, 1930s attire, and the title character’s callous behavior, sometimes it feels more Don Corleone or Don Capone than Don Giovanni, while other moments evoke French New Wave louche cynicism. Alternately suave and swaggering, Okulitch delivers a volatile, Brando-style combination of magnetism and menace in the title role; he’s Daniel Craig to other Dons’ Pierce Brosnans, and Hardy is equally compelling. When not singing, the other characters become unsmiling automatons, puppets with broken strings. Some of the most most sublime love ballads in music are beautifully sung, but even the domestic bliss that’s counterpoised against Giovanni’s lechery is represented here not by passionate embraces, but instead by matching husband-and-wife bedroom slippers, and when the singing’s over, the lovers recline like a pair of corpses.”

Would Mozart and Da Ponte agree with Alden’s unsparing take? Who knows — opera is an inherent contrivance anyway, with nonsensical plots regularly detoured to make room for a poignant aria or star turn. Trying to find psychological consistency in such a tale and character is probably fruitless. What this striking vision of “Don Giovanni” offers is a musically adept, modern vision of an archetype who’s been with us for centuries and will probably be around for plenty more. Portland Opera’s sleek, dark production gives us a compelling, early 21st century view of a perennial story set to timeless music.

 Symphonic Sounds

Oregon Symphony, November 3-5, Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, Portland: Speaking of dark sounds, the orchestra adds players and instruments to hammer out Gustav Mahler’s big, sometimes baleful Symphony #6 this weekend, preceding it with some of Schubert’s loveliest sounds: his incidental music for the play “Rosamunde.” If you need more Mahler, the Eugene Symphony will be happy to oblige later this month — we’ll tell you about that soon.

Beaverton Symphony Orchestra, November 2 and 4, Village Baptist Church, Beaverton: The orchestra commendably leads off with an overture by the dean of Portland composers, Tomas Svoboda, and rounds out the program with Tchaikovsky’s “Romeo and Juliet” fantasy overture and Brahms’s fourth symphony.

Starlight Symphony, November 4, Tualatin Presbyterian Church: the orchestra plays Beethoven’s first symphony, Mozart’s second flute concerto, and music by Rossini and Wagner.

Deft Duos and more

Alfredo Muro and Victor Villadangos, November 3, First Congregational Church, Portland: The Lima-born former Portlander joins the Argentine tango master in a Portland Classic Guitars double showcase of Latin rhythms.

Ronn McFarlane, November 4, Beaverton Library Auditorium: This afternoon solo recital is an opportunity to hear one of the world’s greatest lutenists, probably most familiar from his work with the Baltimore Consort, who’s an Oregonian and an engaging performer.

Musica Maestrale, November 3, Community Music Center, Portland: lutenist Hideki Yamaya and soprano Amy Hansen play Renaissance, Baroque and Classical period Spanish songs.

Stephanie Blythe, November 7, Kaul Auditorium, Reed College, Portland: abetted by pianist Craig Terry, the opera star celebrates the songs made famous by Kate Smith, and not just that one everyone knows today.


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