In his program notes for this production of Don Giovanni, Opera Santa Barbara Artistic Director Kostis Protopapas refers to the film noir costumes, props, and sets as a “lens” through which to see the material anew, and that’s exactly right. There was no attempt to modernize the underlying plot or the libretto here, but there was a new filter thrown over the work on a strictly visual level. The numerous handguns, for example, were a modern touch, but while they did figure in the action, they did so as visuals rather than as weapons — after all, none of them ever actually went off. What did go off like fireworks throughout the evening was the explosive musical imagination of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who was at his most dazzling when he composed Don Giovanni, working against the clock to meet a second deadline (he blew through the first) in Prague during October of 1781.
The plot of Don Giovanni lacks the complexity and integration of The Marriage of Figaro or Così fan tutte . Despite the ruckus, the story’s only genuinely consequential characters are Don Giovanni (Mark Walters) and the Commendatore (Kevin Thompson). They engage in mortal combat while the rest of the cast struggles in vain without achieving their goals. Yet Mozart makes a strength out of this apparent weakness, as the abundant vignettes featuring these secondary figures are flavorful and intoxicating. For example, the fraught relationship of Masetto and Zerlina transforms the genre of the servant-class love story from something predictable into a sensuous and comic world of its own. Mosher Studio artists Ryan Bradford and Sara Duchovnay excelled at developing the ups and downs of this tension-ridden match.
The female leads, Donna Anna (Marcy Stonikas) and Donna Elvira (Rena Harms), make contrasting portraits of two likely victims of Don Giovanni’s false promises. As the woman who already has a man in her life, Anna gets an equivocal treatment that undermines the seeming moral high ground provided her by her father’s murder. As the story’s scorned single lady, Elvira is just as outraged as Anna, but in her own way. She’s out for revenge and takes it by showing up at all the wrong moments to foil Don Giovanni’s attempts at further seductions. Both roles call for intense performances, and both received them in this production. Elvira’s anguish sears the scenes in which she appears; there’s raw emotion in her angular interjections. Beneath the comedy of her response to Leporello’s (Daniel Mobbs) famous catalogue of his master’s conquests, there’s an obsessiveness that’s signified in this production by her use of a magnifying glass to examine the records.
The double standard with regard to sexuality that makes the Don’s behavior possible would seem to point toward a better time for the story’s male characters, but that’s not the case. Ottavio, splendidly sung by UCSB’s Ben Brecher, gets a great aria in Act II, but in the epilogue Anna still has him trapped in the friend zone. Leporello, played exceedingly well by Mobbs, stole several scenes with his great timing and physicality.
Furniture flew in the finale when Don Giovanni faced off with his stone nemesis. Thanks to Mozart’s brilliant score, this supernatural sequence is genuinely scary. The Commendatore may be a monster, but he has karma on his side. Don Giovanni, who up until now has been thoroughly unsympathetic, manages in his refusal to repent to elicit something like respect. He’s no kind of hero, but at least he’s consistent.
This was one of the best efforts yet by Opera Santa Barbara, with intimacy and sparseness turned to advantage, as these immortal characters were brought into the light for an extreme close up.