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Much Is Lost in an Abbreviated 'Don Giovanni' Television Review


Don Giovanni will be unmasked on KCET-TV at 5 p.m. Sunday. Here is how it happens.

An elegant Hollywood audience, formally dressed, gathers on an outdoor precipice, where a film screen and folding chairs have been set up. The time period is the 1930s. A noisy hand-wound projector is operated by a creepy hooded figure. They watch a black-and-white film (and, oddly for the period, it's wide-screen), which takes place in what is supposed to be 17th century Seville but is, in fact, set on the same precipice. The viewers are the actors in the film. The dapper host is the Don's servant Leporello, who will star in the film as the Don.

The Don is a masked man who looks like Zorro and seduces women. The Don removes his mask. The audience is shocked and enters into a dialogue with the film. The Don is sent to hell, and the precipice, on the screen and off, is surrounded by flames. The music is Mozart's. The concept is Barbara Willis Sweete's.

It lasts just under an hour, which is too little time to effectively realize Mozart's multilayered opera. But it is far too long for a one-trick music video, which is what this television opera film most closely resembles. Blame Canada.

"Don Giovanni Unmasked" is a Canadian production, using the Canadian Opera Company orchestra blandly conducted by Richard Bradshaw. It serves as a vehicle for the courtly Russian baritone, Dmitri Hvorostovsky, an elegant singer, as Leporello and the Don. He looks good here, and he sounds good. But he appears uncomfortable in his artificial environment, made all the phonier by poor lip-syncing.

Given the lack of dramatic and cinematic sophistication of most opera shown on American television, almost any concept might seem striking. But I can't imagine for whom this disconnected, discombobulated show is intended. Mozart's opera is not newly focused, as Peter Brook's similarly shortened "Carmen" was a quarter century ago.

Indeed, so choppy is the new version of "Don Giovanni" that it actually feels interminable. The fashionable look of the visuals may stop an MTV-savvy channel surfer opera neophyte for, say, three or four minutes. I would wager that a terrific production of the full three-hour "Don Giovanni" would hold even that crowd longer.

* "Don Giovanni Unmasked" can be seen on "Great Performances" at 5 p.m. Sunday on KCET-TV.

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