Review: Stephen Barlow Creates an Elegant New “Don Giovanni” Production – Santa Fe Opera, June 29, 2024

Australian director Stephen Barlow struck production gold by centering the action of composer Mozart’s and librettist Lorenzo da Ponte’s masterpiece, “Don Giovanni”, in a posh neighborhood of the 1880s Victorian London. This was a period when Great Britain’s stratified class system strictly governed relationships between men and women of different classes.

Barlow’s concept, in collaboration with Greek scenic and costume designer Yannis Thavoris, proved to be an illuminating reminder of the different worlds of characters from the nobility and working class so evident in the Mozart-da Ponte operas.

A central idea incorporated into the new production relates to the initials “DG”. Barlow made use of the coincidence that the initials “DG” are shared by two characters of fiction who meet supernatural fates – Don Giovanni and Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray. Barlow exploits the Dorian Gray connection by having Don Giovanni’s portrait painted in a pantomime during the opera’s overture.

Ryan Speedo Green’s Don Giovanni and Soloman Howard’s Commendatore

Virginia-born bass-baritone Ryan Speedo Green made a strong impression as the narcissitic Don. His famous arias – Finch’han dal vino (the Champagne aria) and Deh vieni alla finestra (the Serenade) – were masterfully performed and well-received by the Santa Fe audience.

This was my first opportunity to attend a performance by Green, a 2011 Metropolitan Opera winner. The Santa Fe Opera’s support for Green’s career is evident in their announcement that in the 2025 season, Green is cast as Wotan in the company’s first ever production of Wagner’s “Die Walküre”

Don Giovanni’s nemesis is the ghost of the Commendatore, the man whom the Don killed during the attempted seduction of the Commendatore’s daughter, Donna Anna. District of Columbia bass Soloman Howard was an imposing Commendatore. Murdered by Giovanni in the opera’s first scene, towards opera’s end, the Commendatore emerges from a portrait in Don GIovanni’s home

[Below: Don Giovanni (Ryan Speedo Green), awaiting his supernatural guest, eats his final supper; edited image, based on a Curtis Brown photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]

In Barlow’s production, for Don GIovanni’s final appearance in the opera, both the Don and the Commendatore are wearing identical dressing robes. Rather than the Don disappearing into Hell, as occurs near the end of most productions, the Don is stabbed to death by the Commendatore, and dies on the exact place onstage (marked by a blood red spot) that the Don committed the Commendatore’s murder.

[Below: the ghost of the Commendatore (Soloman Howard, right) steps out of a painting to end the life of Don Giovanni (Ryan Speedo Green, left); edited image, based on a Curtis Brown photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]

This was my fourth opportunity to see Howard in a Mozart role and the third opportunity for what has become a signature role for him. [See my previous reports at Review: Sean Panikkar, So Young Park Brilliant in Madeline Sayet’s “Magic Flute” – Glimmerglass Festival, July 20, 2015 and Review: Okulitch, Ketelsen Star in Santa Fe Opera’s New “Don Giovanni”, July 2, 2016 and Review: Dupuis and Pisaroni Lead International Cast for Michael Cavanagh’s New “Don Giovanni” Production – San Francisco Opera, June 12, 2022].

Nicholas Newton’s Leporello and Rachael Wilson’s Donna Elvira

California bass-baritone Nicholas Newton was an amusing Leporello, donning the outfit of a late 19th century livery man. From his first major aria, the nicely performed Madamina, regaling the sexual exploits of his master, Newton connected with the audience.

[Below: Nicholas Newton as Leporello; edited image, based on a Curtis Brown photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]

This was my second opportunity to see Newton in person. Two seasons prior, he had been an hilarious Don Basilio in Stephen Barlow’s production of Rossini’s “Barber” [See Review: A Hilarious “Barbiere di Siviglia” from Hopkins, Swanson, Fons and Burdette – Santa Fe Opera, August 6, 2022.]

[Below: In a ritzy hotel reminescent of London’s Savoy in the 1880s, Leporello (Nicholas Newton, left) has exchanged his servant’s clothes with the nobleman’s clothes of his master, Don GIovanni (Ryan Speedo Green, right), to allow the latter to romance a servant girl; edited image, based on a Curtis Brown photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]

Earlier, I had reviewed Newton’s performance in the operatic world premiere of “The Snowy Day”. [See Streamed World Premiere Review: Joel Thompson’s and Andrea Davis Pinkney’s “The Snowy Day” – A Child-friendly Opera for the Winter Holidays, Houston Grand Opera, December 9, 2021.]

Nevada mezzo-soprano Rachael Wilson proved an excellent choice for the role of Donna Elvira, pursuing the Don who seduced, then abandoned her. In Barlow’s production, she arrives in London for an extended stay in upscale Hotel Savoy-like accommodations.

[Below: Rachael Wilson as Donna Elvira; edited image, based on a Curtis Brown photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]

Wilson gave standout performances of Elvira’s showpiece arias – Ah! chi mi dire mai and Mi tradi quell’anima ingrata – and sang beautifully in the ensembles.

Rachel Fitzgerald’s Donna Anna and David Portillo’s Don Ottavio

Prior to the performance’s beginning, General Director Robert K Meya appeared at the footlights to announce that 2024 Santa Fe Opera Apprentice Rachel Fitzgerald would be performing the role of Donna Anna in place of the originally scheduled artist, who had withdrawn from the role. Subsequently, the company announced that Fitzgerald would be the Donna Anna in each of the first three performances, and Rachel Willis-Sorensen, this season’s Marschallin in Richard Strauss’ “Der Rosenkavlier”, would perform the later performances from July 29 through the end of the season.

Fitzgerald stepped into what is a very challenging role, displaying a pleasant, tightly-controlled vibrato, that softened as the evening progressed. She dispatched each of Donna Anna’s arias commendably and performed admirably in the several ensembles, notably in her duets with Don Ottavio.

[Below: the nobles Donna Anna (Rachel Fitzgerald, left) and Don Ottavio (David Portillo, standng right) find what they believe is a sympathetic ear in a fellow member of the nobility, Don Giovanni (Ryan Speedo Green, center); edited image, based on a Curtis Brown photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]

In an illuminating departure from performance tradition, when Fitzberald’s Donna Anna relates to Don Ottavio the circumstances of Giovanni’s attempted rape, she and Don Ottavio are standing in a set, created for the aria, of Anna’s beautifully appointed bedroom.

Texas lyric tenor David Portillo was Donna Anna’s intended husband-tu-be, Don Ottavio. Portillo is an accomplished Mozartian, masterfully performing the vocal fireworks of Ottavio’s two major arias, Dalla sua pace and Il mio tesoro.

[Below: David Portillo as Don Ottavio; edited image, based on a Curtis Brown photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]

I have praised both his Dallas Don Ottavio and Chicago Arbace [See Review: Craig Verm Leads The Dallas Opera’s Compelling “Don Giovanni” Cast, April 27, 2018 and Review: Matthew Polenzani Stars in Jean-Pierre Ponnelle “World Treasure” Production of Mozart’s “Idomeneo” – Lyric Opera, Chicago, November 2, 2018.]

Portillo last appeared at Santa Fe Opera to create the role of Jonathan Harker in the world premiere of “Lord if Cries”, a new Corigliano opera [Review: Anthony Roth Costanzo, Jarrett Ott and Kathryn Henry Lead Strong Cast for Corigliano’s New “Lord of Cries” – Santa Fe Opera, July 21, 2021].

Liv Redpath’s Zerlina and William Guanbo Su’s Masetto

Minnesota soprano Liv Redpath was a charming Zerlina, persuaded by Green’s Don Giovanni’s offer of “protection” to join Green in La ci darem lo mano, one of Mozart’s most memorable melodies. Redpath was at her most enchanting in her arias assuaging the hurt feelings of her bridegroom, Masetto

[Below: Zerlina (Liv Redpath, left) joints Don Giovanni (Ryan Speedo Green, right) in a duet; edited image, based on a Curtis Brown photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]

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The Santa Fe Opera was the scene of Redpath’s triumphant appearance as Zerbinetta [Review: Santa Fe Opera’s Delectable New “Ariadne auf Naxos” – Santa Fe Opera, July 28, 2018]. See also my review of her Gretel [Review: A joyous “Hansel and Gretel” in Doug Fitch’s enchanting production – Los Angeles Opera, December 9, 2018].

This was my first opportunity to review a performance by Chinese bass William Guanbo Su, a 2019 Metropolitan Opera Laffont Competition Grand FInals winner.

[Below: the wedding between Masetto (William Guanbo Su, second from left) and Zerlina (Liv Redpath, right, in bridal gown) is thrown into chaos by an unexpected arrival; edited image, based on a Curtis Brown photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]

Guanbo Su gave a vocally solid and dramatically eye-catching performance as Masetto, his role visually enhanced by Yavoris’ impactful costume. His interactions with Redpath’s Zerlina were affecting. 

From the first notes of Masetto’s first aria Ho capito, Signor, one could tell we are in the presence of a rising operatic star. (The part of Masetto is an entry point into the Mozart big leagues for bass-baritones, a role that often precedes careers in the larger Leporello and Don Giovanni roles.)

[Below: William Guanbo Su as Masetto; edited image, based on a Curtis Brown photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]

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Maestro Harry Bicket and the Santa Fe Opera and Chorus

The Santa Fe Opera Orchestra was conducted by Maestro Harry Bicket, the Santa Fe Opera’s Music Director. From the very first notes of the Overture through the sextet after Don Giovanni’s death, the orchestra’s musical performance was an authoritative presentation of Mozart’s opera.

[Below: Maestro Harry Bicket; edited image, based on a photograph, from LA Opus]

In the final scenes, the Santa Fe Opera Apprentices, under the leadership of Chorus Master Suzanne Sheston, performed the chorus of demons who announce Giovanni’s fate.

Stephen Barlow’s Production and Yannis Thavoris’ Scenic and Costume Design

Stephen Barlow has mounted three productions at Santa Fe Opera over the past dozen years, beginning with 2012’s season-opening “Tosca” [Review: Echalaz, Jagde, Aceto Open Santa Fe Opera Season in Wonderfully Sung “Tosca” – June 29, 2012] and continuing through the 2022 “Barbiere di Siviglia” referenced above.

[Below: Director Stephen Barlow; edited image, based on a publicity photograph from NR1 Creatives, Ltd.]

Barlow’s two Santa Fe Opera collaborations with designer Thavoris – “Tosca” and “Don GIovanni”  – are beautifully conceived, colorful productions. The sets for the “Don Giovanni” production are particularly inventive, opening and closing like the pages of book.

[Below; Designer Yannis Thavoris; edited image from Linked.In.]

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One doesn’t have to buy too far into the “Dorian Gray” references to notice how the Barlow-Travoris production strengthens the theme of the supernatural bond between the Don and the Commendatore. It is the murder of the Commendatore, as much as the Don’s sexual excesses (and assaults) that dooms the Don.

In another departure from performance tradition (and stage directions) the Don’s death scene takes place in a gallery of paintings, which come alive, voiced by Santa Fe Opera Apprentices, summoning Don GIovanni to repent or face damnation.

[Below: the crowd from Masetto’s and Zerlina’s wedding gather in Don Giovanni’s gallery to witness his fate; edited image, based on a Curtis Brown photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]

The noted departures from tradition do not change the basic story of the opera. For those who prefer to see the Don burning in Hell at the opera’s end, that may be a disappointment, but the singing is wonderful, and there will always be future productions of “Don Giovanni”

A Weather Report

In my experiences reviewing Santa Fe Opera performances each season since 2008, almost every night, with only a few exceptions, has been a pleasant, fair weather evening. However, whenever I travel I always pack a poncho, and take it with me to the opera if there appears to be any possibility of inclement weather. This performance was one where I ended up wearing the poncho (to the envy of some of the persons in nearby seats).

[Below: An evening performance at Santa Fe Opera, edited image, based on a publicity photograph from Santa Fe Opera]

The evening, however, did not rank high on my list of foul weather performances, such as in 2009 [Review: 21st Century Maugham: Moravec, Racette Reopen “The Letter” in Santa Fe – July 29, 2009] and in 2012 [Review: Stormy Weather, But Strong Performances from Pisaroni, Crocetto, Bardon, Sledge in Rossini’s “Maometto II” – Santa Fe Opera, August 2, 2012].

Recommendation

I recommend the Santa Fe Opera’s “Don Giovanni” cast and production to both the veteran opera-goer and to persons new to opera.