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OPERA REVIEW : 'Don Giovanni' by the Numbers in San Francisco

November 27, 1995|MARTIN BERNHEIMER | TIMES MUSIC CRITIC

SAN FRANCISCO — Some operas virtually play by themselves. Just get a decent cast, a routined conductor, a comfy set and say go. The result may shatter no earth, but it won't cause any grief, either.

"Don Giovanni" isn't one of those operas. It is delicate and complex, a precarious fusion of tragic and comic impulses, an unyielding, contradictory masterpiece that demands to be treated with tender, stylish, probing care.

The new production at the San Francisco Opera--the last new production, incidentally, to be staged at the War Memorial Opera House prior to its 18-month closure for seismic repair--isn't the answer to any Mozartean's prayers. It bumbles and stumbles just when one wants it to soar. It settles for hand-me-down solutions to heroic problems and employs a lightweight cast. Ultimately most damaging, it dares take no chances, musically or dramatically.

Lotfi Mansouri, the ubiquitous general-director of the company, has staged the proceedings essentially as a series of predictable entries and exits within an all-purpose unit set. Admittedly, the sex act mimed by a hasty Don Giovanni and a consensual Donna Anna isn't exactly predictable, but it isn't exactly helpful either. Nor is it reinforced by words and music.

The set, a tiered structure designed by the ubiquitous Gerald Howland, pretends to invoke the Shakespearean universe of the Globe Theater. It also awakens memories of "Don Giovanni" as staged nearly a half century ago by Herbert Graf, Mansouri's erstwhile mentor, in the Felsenreitschule of Salzburg. There isn't much enlightening dramma here, and what transpires isn't particularly giocoso. At least the scene changes are swift, and the price must have been right.

Thierry Bosquet created the costumes. Like much else in this project, they tend to confuse lavish with garish.

Concept? What concept?

This, essentially, is "Don Giovanni" by the numbers. Still, the production could have been validated, to a degree at least, by brilliant music-making. No such luck.

Donald Runnicles, the resident music-director, conducted on Friday like a man in a hurry. In the process, he sometimes left his orchestra scrambled and his singers breathless. He slighted grandeur at one extreme, and intimacy at the other. He confused purists, moreover, by inserting an occasional mini-cadenza here and allowing a rare appoggiatura there but applying no 18th-Century performance practice with consistency of purpose. Mozart may not be his metier.

The all-important title role had been entrusted at the first three performances to the popular American basso Samuel Ramey. His Don Giovanni, we are told, was most notable for trademark swashbuckling and trademark baring of a hairy chest.

At this performance, the protagonist's duties were passed to the British baritone William Shimell. He swashbuckled dutifully, if without much Latin allure, and took off his shirt on cue (sorry, no hair).

*

He also sang suavely and intelligently, within a rather limited dynamic scale, yet seemed less than comfortable and less than convincing when forced to imitate his predecessor. By nature, Shimell's Don Giovanni would seem to be more sinister, more spidery, more insinuating. No doubt, he would have benefited from a staging scheme that focused his special attributes.

Even so, he remained a commanding presence. That could not be said for many of his colleagues. Alfonso Antoniozzi introduced a youthful Leporello with lots of charm and little voice (and what little there was evaporated as the line descended). John Mark Ainsley introduced an Ottavio of much taste, remarkable urgency and modest vocal resources.

Ironically, the most aristocratic of the three women turned out to be Rebecca Evans, the Welsh soprano cast as the peasant-bride Zerlina. Although she may have been overdressed and soubrette coy, her silver-bell tones were always appealing.

Daniela Dessi, remembered for canceling her appearance in the "Otello" that inaugurated the Music Center Opera a decade ago, served as a comic-virago Donna Elvira whose sweet piano tone turned harsh under pressure. Deborah Riedel, remembered for singing a lovely Amina in "La Sonnambula" two seasons ago in San Diego, sounded surprisingly hooty as a Donna Anna plagued by pitch problems.

Victor von Halem's fuzzy basso boomed darkly (with the now-all-too-usual electronic boost) as the ghostly Commendatore. Earle Petriarco upheld the honor of the local training program with a bright and incisive Masetto.

The performing edition, an odd conflation of the Prague and Vienna versions, included "Per queste tue manine," the seldom-heard and rather trite buffo duet in which Zerlina plays sadist to Leporello's masochist. It served primarily to make a dangerously long evening even longer.

* Remaining performances of "Don Giovanni" at the War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco, Tuesday at 8 p.m., Friday at 7:30, Sunday at 2, Dec. 7 at 7:30. $21-$125 (standing room $8, student/senior rush seats $25). (415) 864-3330.

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