Pocket Opera 2020 Review: Don Giovanni
Soprano Sara LeMesh Is Standout in Tame Take on Legendary OperaBy Lois Silverstein
(Photo Provided by Pocket Opera)
Pocket Opera, the San Francisco Bay Area’s flagship chamber opera company, opened its 2020 season on March 1, 2020 with the Mozart/Da Ponte masterpiece, “Don Giovanni.”
The production was the first under the leadership of the company’s recently installed artistic director, Nicolas A. Garcia. Garcia previously served as the assistant artistic director under Pocket Opera’s founder and Artistic Director Emeritus, Donald Pippin. Directed by Jane Erwin, the cast brought forth an engaging performance.
The infamous Don, his long-suffering servant Leporello, and the trail of damsels the lecherous nobleman chased, seduced, and discarded cavorted around the stage of Berkeley’s Hillside Club with élan and glee, while infusing Mozart’s self-styled “dramma giocoso” with a highly relevant and serious contemporary echo. When the curtain rang down, the audience regaled the performance with praise.
Music Director César Canon conducted the eleven-member Pocket Orchestra with precision, coaxing Mozart’s genius from the score to maximum effect.
Da Ponte’s libretto, sung in English seemed to slacken the pace somewhat with the language becoming the chief focus, taking precedence over crispness of tempi. While the musical line was never sacrificed, it didn’t ascend in its dynamic contrasts as far as it could have, perhaps hampered by the emphasis placed on the English libretto rather than achieving the correct balance of music and story.
Zerlina Takes Center Stage
The young peasant girl, Zerlina, sung by soprano Sara LeMesh, centered the drama with her seduction by the devilish Don capturing the narrative pulse.
Interestingly, I cared more about her than either Donna Elvira and Anna, perhaps this is as it should be since the Don’s actions toward the naïve farm girl occurred right before the audience’s eyes while his history with the noblewomen was limited to reminiscences of things past.
LeMesh excelled in her coy, seductive manner, as well as in her vocal energy. Her dramatic expression and deft, deliberate movement about the stage combined to give her a bright presence in each scene.
In “Vedrai carino,” LeMesh illustrated her acting charm as well as her lyrical and playful sound, though her voice turned somewhat thin as it climbed up the register.
Bass Mitchell Jones, in his Pocket Opera debut, played Zelina’s cloddish but sweet Masetto. Jones delivered a solid performance, demonstrating his vocal and acting versatility throughout the show.
Strong Moments & Flaws
Donna Anna, sung by soprano Rahibah Davis Dunn, infused her character’s innocence with a radiant tone. Her initial duet with Don Ottavio served up an opening act full of energy. When on stage, Davis Dunn’s Donna Anna steadied all the hubbub with the seriousness of her quest for revenge.
Don Ottavio, Donna Anna’s fatherly fiancé sung by Pocket Opera debutant, tenor Kevin Gino, maintained a glowing timbre, though he often fell into stentorian rants. With a sword in his hand and his head cocked to conquer, he proved a good man for Donna Anna to have at her side—even though she found Don Giovanni’s rakish behavior more exciting than the fatherly affection of Ottavio.
Gino’s “Il mio tesoro” showed extraordinary technical skill, but his choice to play the role with imposing physicality and booming vocalizations resulted in limited subtlety. One could argue Gino was attempting to rehabilitate Ottavio from being a bore, but the role calls for more delicate lyricism. When done right, Ottavio’s two arias can steal the show, providing a chance for a tenor to shine in an opera dominated by lower male voices.
Meanwhile, Donna Elvira, sung by mezzo-soprano Jaime Korkos, portrayed full-bore angst, conveying withering disgust and rage. However, more variety—from posture to dynamics—might have given her character more depth.
Some see Donna Elvira’s character as not simply that of a scorned woman prone to launching into bouts of rage, even though the character is often played that way. It’s worth remembering that as the opera heads toward its fiery conclusion, Donna Elvira states that she feels somewhat sorry for the Don, revealing a possible character arc. Does Donna Elvira grow from vengeful to sympathetic? Perhaps. Or is she still under the sway of the nobleman’s charms? If the latter, her pity negates the idea she learned anything from her experience. Ultimately, such choices are left up to the singer and director. In this production, Korkos’ portrayal played up the anger aspect.
Not Quite Dark Enough
Baritone Anders Fröhlich as Don Giovanni and bass Spencer Dodd as Leporello, carried out their dramatic and vocal challenges with conviction. Costumed in a swashbuckling cape, hat, and boots, Fröhlich looked the part of the cavalier cad. He darted in and out of his scenes with conceited delight.
Missing from Frölich’s portrayal was any sense of steamy wickedness, despite Leporello’s enumeration of the 1,003 women his master supposedly bedded. Fröhlich’s Don appeared to bank on his reputation and image rather than on romantic charisma. For example, the famous canzonetta, “Vieni alla finestra,” was sung with more rhythmic regularity rather than the sensual juiciness so associated with one of the greatest seduction arias in opera. The Don appeared to be a paler version of himself, making it hard to believe the lively Zerlina would fall so easily into his arms.
The frightful appearance of the Commendatore’s statue, played by bass Jason Sarten, contributed the appropriate chill. Clad in an elegant light-colored dress, the Commendatore’s dark voice presented a nice audio-visual contrast as he hovered over the insouciant Don and the terrified Leporello.
The ensemble scenes were aptly handled throughout the production. Using a small group of diverse characters to dance and skip across the stage, deft direction, and good staging by Jane Erwin kept the party atmosphere going.
Pocket Opera’s “Don Giovanni” showed how a grand opera performed in a small space can offer a satisfying and unique experience due to the close proximity of artists and audiences, something missing in large theaters.
Garcia, is aiming high with his 2020 program, as evidenced by his decision to kick the season into gear with a work known for the demands it places on the principal cast. Small flaws aside, Pocket Opera’s “Don Giovanni” worked well enough to bring joy to the Berkeley audience.