A Journey Through Madison's Classical Music Scene
Apr 27, 2013
01:14 AM
Classically Speaking

Madison Opera’s 'Don Giovanni': Dark Shadows, Brilliant Flashes

Madison Opera’s 'Don Giovanni': Dark Shadows, Brilliant Flashes

At the core of the greatness of Mozart’s Don Giovanni is its uneasy mix of genuine laughs with certifiable evil. We catch ourselves laughing out loud and then remembering: oh yeah, this guy is a rapist/murderer. And if this “playful drama” as Mozart subtitled it isn’t enough of a high wire act, it also requires superb singing and those other transcendent qualities of clarity and balance found in all of Mozart’s greatest music.

So Kathryn Smith opened the conclusion of her first “own” season directing Madison Opera with this elusive artistic target. Friday night in Overture Hall, the first performance of Don Giovanni gave us an opportunity to observe some patterns in Smith’s approach. She consistently brings in new artists (seven singers and production staff made their company debuts) and is not afraid to bring in young singers. Occasionally they show the kind of promise that makes one wonder if we’ll be fortunate enough to see them grace our local stage again—like Kelly Markgraf in the title role. Smith also finds directors that strike a neat balance between a traditional look with fresh staging that both honors the original and engages the audience.

The aforementioned Markgraf found a great match in the Leporello of Matt Boehler. Both men not only possess dark, earthy voices, but also harnessed a genuine chemistry between themselves and in their complex roles. It would be fascinating to see them again in these roles five or ten years down the road.

They also benefited from the direction of Elise Sandell, who emphasized physical action, whether swordplay, a food fight or general threatening and shoving. Partying people acted drunk, women in distress ran the gamut from desperate to despairing, and the chorus scenes were realistically lively and engaging.

Erhard Rom and Ben Zamora, as the scenic and lighting designers respectively, teamed for a compelling set. Tending to be dark most of the time, the stage was usually dominated by a backdrop of a rose in mid-bloom that frequently changed its hue. The final scene, wherein the slain Commendatore takes Giovanni up on his dinner invitation was for once what-you-see-is-what-you-get. Too many directors fail to go all in on the premise that he would rise from the dead and drag Giovanni to hell when he refuses to repent. Nathan Stark emerged from inside his cemetery memorial, and with smoke billowing and red lights growing in intensity, the visual impact matched the musical climax.

The ladies’ vocal highlights start with Angela Mannino as Zerlina, the peasant girl about to be wed whom Giovanni pounces upon. Whether reassuring her betrothed that her heart is pure, or later giving him “TLC” after he’s been beaten by Leporello, Mannino was vocally pure and irresistibly charming.

For once we had a guest conductor leading members of the Madison Symphony, Joseph Mechavich. He led a crisp orchestra that balanced intensity with transparency, and the singers were nearly flawless in their phrasing and the accuracy of their “patter” sequences.

To make the evening complete, banners announcing next season’s repertoire hung in the Overture Center, and Smith will give us more of the same, and then some: Puccini’s Tosca to open, Donizetti’s The Daughter of the Regiment, and to conclude, a true event: Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking. It will be DeMain’s twentieth season as music director, and while it will only be Smith’s third (and second with repertoire of her own choosing), she continues to put her stamp on the company. You get one more chance Sunday afternoon to experience it for yourself.

Photo: Kelly Markgraf and Angela Mannino, courtesy James Gill Photography.

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About This Blog

Years before I contributed my first classical review to the Los Angeles Times in 1988, I started a class in music appreciation for adults that had one aim: to put a few cracks in the “ivory tower elitism” I found pervasive in the classical music world since my boyhood days. Whether as a critic, program annotator or band director, that goal has never changed. After all, Mozart and Beethoven and the gang wrote their music for people like you—not critics or professors!

After growing up in the suburbs of New York City, and spending twenty years in and around Los Angeles, the last twelve years here leave me more amazed than ever at the musical riches of Madison. I’m a cheerleader at heart, because I always think more people would become classical fans if they’d give it a chance—but I’m also quick to tell you when you’re not getting your money’s worth. Classically Speaking brings you as much news and as many reviews as possible, and I hope you’ll join me for a fabulous musical journey.

–  Greg Hettmansberger
Follow Greg on Twitter @ghettmansberger

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