The Houston Grand Opera mounted Danish director Kasper Holten’s production of Mozart’s “Don Giovanni”. Holten’s concept departs from traditional ways of presenting Mozart’s operatic masterpiece – where the Don is dragged to Hell by a ghostly stone statue.
Kasper Holten’s Production, Es Devlin’s Sets and Luke Halls’ Video Design
All of the opera’s scenes take place on Es Devlin’s cube-shaped, two story set, with room interiors and staircases between the levels visible to the audience.
[Below: the upper floor rooms (left to right) are occupied by Donna Anna (Ailyn Pérez). Don Ottavio (Ben Bliss) and Donna Elvira (Melody Moore) and the lower floor rooms by Leporello (Paolo Bordogna, lower left) and Zerlina (Dorothy Gal, center room, left) and Masetto (Daniel Noyola, center room, right; edited image, based on a Lynn Lane photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]
The video projections of designer Luke Halls are another central feature of the production. As the opera begins, the handwritten names of Giovanni’s conquests begin to appear and before long cover every part of Devlin’s set.
Halls’ projection designs are often breathtakingly original. In several cases when characters are in disguise, they seemingly disappear into the sets.
At other times seven ghostly specters move through the rooms and staircases, representing the spirits of the women the Don has abandoned. White, black or blood red video images on occasion burst upon the scene.
All these aspects reinforce Kasper Holten’s treatment of Mozart’s work as a psychological journey into the mind of sexually obsessed individual. Holten has stated that for such a person, Hell would be social isolation.
[Below: At opera’s end, Don Giovanni (Ryan McKinny), who is now separated from all human contact, faces his future with terror; edited image, based on a Lynn Lane photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]
The production is a collaboration between the Houston Grand Opera and the Royal Opera House Covent Garden, the Teatre del Liceu and the Israeli Opera. Seen on several occasions in London, it travelled to Barcelona and Tel Aviv before its debut in Houston.
Ryan McKinny’s Don Giovanni
California baritone Ryan McKinny is a handsome artist, who is believable in this iconic role. A physical actor, McKinny demonstrated the vocal beauty and control needed to be a great Don Giovanni. That control was exhibited throughout his performance, particularly in a rousing Champagne aria and in sotto voce passages of the Serenade.
Mozart and his librettist, Lorenzo Da Ponte, have given us only a couple of hints at the Don’s powers of seduction – Leporello’s catalogue aria and the information that the Don spent three nights in Burgos with Donna Elvira.
[Below: Don Giovanni (Ryan McKinny, center) resists the efforts of either Donna Elvira (Melody Moore, left) or Leporello (Paolo Bordogna, right) to influence his behavior; edited image, based on a Lynn Lane photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]
Holten chooses to make explicit Donna Anna’s sexual attraction to Don Giovanni that Mozart and Da Ponte have only inferred. In halluinatory scenes, Giovanni makes his seductive moves on the two noblewomen (Anna and Elvira) during their key arias.
McKinny’s Don Giovanni appears throughout the opera in pantomimed scenes. Sometimes he is the Don, observing other characters. At other times, he is the visual representation conjured up by what the other characters are thinking about him.
Most Giovannis are on stage only when they are singing. In Holten’s production, the Giovanni is onstage for almost all of the opera.
Ailyn Pérez’ Donna Anna and Ben Bliss’ Don Ottavio
Illinois soprano Ailyn Pérez was a superb Donna Anna, delivering her aria Or sai, chi l’onore with an intensity that confirms Pérez as a Mozartian of the first rank.
Holten’s staging made clear her character’s conflict between furious anger at Giovanni and her inability to resist his sexual charisma. Although Pérez’ aria Non mir dir is intended as a message to her fiance Don Ottavio that she needs time before she can consummate a marriage to him, Holten makes clear through a seductive embrace from McKinny’s Don Giovanni that Anna has other things on her mind.
Pérez’ considerable acting skills heightened that conflict. She feels the guilt of having enjoyed Don Giovanni’s seduction, of inadvertently causing her father’s death, and her need to distance herself from her upcoming marriage to the faithful Don Ottavio.
[Below: Ailyn Pérez as Donna Anna; edited image, based on a Lynn Lane photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]Holten
As Don Ottavio, Kansas tenor Ben Bliss provided a textbook lesson on how to sing the character’s two great arias Dalla sua pace and Il mio tesoro, with melodic variations for the second verses of each. He sang beautifully in the trios with Donna Anna and Donna Elvira.
[Below: Ben Bliss as Don Ottavio; edited image, based on a Lynn Lane photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]
Paolo Bordogna’s Leporello and Melody Moore’s Donna Elvira
Italian bass-baritone Paolo Bordogna was an engaging, luxuriously sounding Leporello, whose “catalogue aria” Madamina and was delivered with wit and charm. Holten’s production suggests the existential issues with which Leporello struggles.
[Below: Paolo Bordogna as Leporello; edited image, based on a Lynn Lane photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]
Tennessee soprano Melody Moore skillfully dispatched Elvira’s introspective arias, Ah! chi mi dice mai and Mi tradi, quell’alma ingrata.
In doing so, Moore effectively portrayed an emotionally complex Donna Elvira – a woman who is seeking either a rapprochement and rededication of her relationship with Don Giovanni (with whom three days of lovemaking was apparently her life’s high point to date) or to exact revenge on him.
[Below: Melody Moore as Donna Elvira (standing behind second floor safety wire); edited image, based on a Lynn Lane photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]
Dorothy Gal’s Zerlina, Daniel Noyola’s Masetto and Kristinn Sigmundsson’s Commendatore
New York soprano Dorothy Gal, a leggiero soprano, was convincing as the unsophisticated peasant girl, Zerlina.
[Below: Dorothy Gal as Zerlina; edited image, based on a Lynn Lane photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]
Her bridegroom, Mexican bass-baritone Daniel Noyola, was an impressive Masetto. His selection as a contestant for Placido Domingo’s 2019 Operalia contest in Prague, confirms that he is at the beginning of an important operatic career.
[Below: Daniel Noyola as Masetto; edited image, based on a Lynn Lane photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]
Icelandic bass Kristinn Sigmundsson delivered the Commendatore’s terrifying warnings to McKinny’s Giovanni with authority.
Like Giovanni in Holten’s conception, Sigmundsson’s Commendatore appears in more scenes in this production than those scenes for which Mozart has composed music for him. The Commendatore’s greater presence in this production proves to be a very effective innovation.
[Below: Kristinn Sigmundsson as the Commendatore; edited image, based on a Lynn Lane photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]
Maestro Cristian Macelaru and the Houston Grand Opera Orchestra and Chorus
Maestro Cristian Macelaru presided over a lucid, well-paced performance of Houston Grand Opera Orchestra. The orchestra, in the friendly surroundings of the Wortham Center’s Brown Theater, sounded magnificent.
I enthusiastically recommend the Houston Grand Opera’s cast and the musical performance, in what is an absorbing production.
For my program notes on “Don Giovanni” written on behalf of the San Diego Opera, see:Don Giovanni in Bohemia: How the Community of Prague Assured Mozart’s Last Four Operas.
For my interview and conversation with Ryan McKinny, see: Rising Stars: An Interview with Ryan McKinny
For my interviews with Ailyn Perez, see:Rising Stars – An Interview with Ailyn Pérez, part 1 andRising Stars – An Interview with Ailyn Pérez, part 2
For my interview with Melody Moore, see: Rising Stars: An Interview with Melody Moore