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MUSIC REVIEW : Gilfry: A Boyish Don Giovanni at Pavilion

October 13, 1994|MARTIN BERNHEIMER | TIMES MUSIC CRITIC

Rodney Gilfry, the new Don Giovanni at the Music Center Opera, does almost everything right.

Tall, lithe and slender, he looks terrific. He is obviously intelligent, and he commands a bright, firm and flexible voice that wraps itself easily around the Mozartean cantilena.

This is an extraordinarily talented young man blessed with a real flair for the stage, a sophisticated sense of style and appealing vocal resources. Gilfry, moreover, is an artist who actually can exude charm without being arch about it.

So why was "Don Giovanni" so frustrating Tuesday night when he took over the treacherous title role from Thomas Allen at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion?

The explanations are complex. Don Giovanni is a challenge that demands time and maturity as well as charisma. Two of the most celebrated 20th-Century paragons, Ezio Pinza and Cesare Siepi, achieved ultimate success only after numerous false starts, and after much stimulating work with demanding conductors and directors.

Gilfry, who doesn't stalk and doesn't swagger, hasn't enjoyed much experience so far in the seducing fields of old Seville. And, unlike Pinza and Siepi, both dark-toned bassos, he is a light-toned baritone. He exudes gentle bonhomie in a part that traditionally demands sinister grandeur.

With more seasoning and better focused leadership, he might make a considerable mark on his own estimable terms--within a properly intimate milieu. It should be remembered that the Pavilion, which seats 3,200, is virtually twice as big as most European houses.

At this juncture, Gilfry resembles a boy sent in to do a man's job. He is amiable, bright, eager, suave and a trifle smug--an ideal Papageno, perhaps, trapped in the rong costume. His Don Giovanni is neither particularly aristocratic nor particularly sensual. Even so, Donna Elvira would have to be blind, and deaf too, to confuse him with the earthy big-bass Leporello of Paul Plishka.

So what is this nice college kid with the long ponytail doing as the dangerous protagonist of Mozart's dramma giocoso ? He's working hard.

There were moments Tuesday that pointed the way. Gilfry sang "La ci darem la mano" with a lovely, insinuating legato and, even better, mustered both a pretty pianissimo and elegant embellishment for "Deh vieni alla finestra." He never resorted to the predictable head-back-and-hands-on-hips postures and, apart from an over-used, all-purpose laugh, seldom resorted to expressive cliches. Perhaps this performance should be regarded as a down payment.

The remainder of the uneven cast was familiar. Elena Prokina, the vibrant Donna Anna, encountered pitch problems in ascending phrases. Joanna Kozlowska, the often exquisite Elvira, smudged some fioriture . Paula Rasmussen, the smoldering Zerlina, found the soprano tessitura something of a trial for her lovely mezzo-soprano. Thomas Randle's well-intentioned Don Ottavio lacked both grace and technical security. John Atkins as the wide-eyed Masetto and Louis Lebherz as the booming Commendatore represented the home team with enlightened honor.

Everyone followed the hand-me-down outlines of Jonathan Miller's staging with urgent dedication, and Robert Israel's flexible expressionist decors continued to exert their fascination. This remains a thinking-person's "Don Giovanni."

Lawrence Foster again conducted with sturdy, affectionate competence, stylistic inconsistencies notwithstanding.

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