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WEEKEND REVIEW / Opera

A 'Giovanni' Better to Hear Than to See

March 17, 1997|CHRIS PASLES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

There is one great moment in Mozart's "Don Giovanni" in which the composer stops the plot cold to make a point. He brings five of the seven major characters to the front of the stage to have them sing "Viva la liberta!" (Long Live Liberty!) not once, not twice, but 12 times.

The repetitions do not advance the plot an iota; but they make the heart and spirit soar.

Stage director Peter Sellars sees this moment as Mozart taking a heroic revolutionary stand. Others regard it as his public compliment to Austrian Emperor Joseph II, who was encouraging freedom of thought, relaxing censorship laws imposed by his mother, Empress Maria Theresa, and generally ushering in an Age of Enlightenment.

What the moment is not, or should not be, is an occasion for tastelessness and licentiousness, as it was when Opera Pacific opened a five-performance run of "Don Giovanni" Saturday at the Orange County Performing Arts Center.

Credit Mario Corradi as the latest representative of what has become the beleaguered Irvine-based company's signature style in stage direction--lowbrow.

Admittedly, Corradi has eliminated some of the excesses John Pascoe imposed when this ugly production first came our way in 1990, courtesy of David DiChiera's Michigan Opera Theatre. Gone are the half-naked flagellants circling a statue of the Madonna during the overture. The statue no longer reappears for unfathomable reasons to embrace the eponymous hero when he gets dragged down to hell. (Here, he slips into a hole for a prompter's box.)

The epilogue, cut then for dubious reasons, has been restored.

But the infernal drop curtain still chops up scenes to make Mozart's dramatically fluid and forward-looking opera appear as static as the Baroque stand, sing and exit opera it helped to replace.

Major characters still arrive with superfluous attendants. Giovanni now has two harlots, not one, attend his last dinner. We see them first at the party where the paean to liberty is sounded. Donna Elvira arrives with two women in waiting. Giovanni paws both as she sings "Ah! chi mi dice mai."

Pawing and sexual excitement in fact are pandemic. Leporello appears to expose himself to the villagers. Elvira may be a shrew, but she strokes her thigh after coming out to meet Leporello disguised as the Don.

In Corradi's world, nobility, style and class are missing. They were not, for the most part, missing in the music-making or the singing.

Conductor Klaus Donath enforced stylish, if brisk, sometimes very brisk, tempos. He elicited transparent textures and alert playing from the Opera Pacific Orchestra, made up of many Pacific Symphony musicians.

Helen Donath, his wife, essaying Donna Anna for the first time, sounded resplendent--creamy, rich and seamless in ascent. Her acting was vivid and intense.

Richard Cowan offered a powerful but sometimes vocally troubled and often monochromatic Don. He relied overmuch on the hand-to-forehead school of acting.

Philip Cokorinos brought vocal strength and heft to the role of Leporello. The coarseness of character--this is not a Giovanni in waiting--imposed on him must lie at the director's feet.

Juliana Rambaldi stepped in for an indisposed Ashley Putnam to sing Donna Elvira with bright if hard but reasonably agile vocalism. (Rambaldi was scheduled to sing Sunday and next Sunday. Putnam is still down to sing Wednesday and Saturday.) Tracey Welborn brought a slender tenor to the role of Don Ottavio. Jee Hyun Lim sang Zerlina with a narrow, silvery soprano. Steven Mortier sang Masetto with warmth and sympathy.

The supertitles prompted much laughing, often in advance of a line's delivery. The delicate ironies passed in silence. Still, this "Don Giovanni" sounded better than it looked.

* Opera Pacific will repeat "Don Giovanni" Wednesday and Saturday at 8 p.m.; Sunday at 2 p.m. Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. $22-$89. (714) 556-2787.

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