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In Search of Divine Ambiguities

A director eliminates complex sets to emphasize characters' gray areas in Opera Pacific's 'Don Giovanni.'

January 20, 2002|CHRIS PASLES | Times Staff Writer

For director Thor Steingraber, the essence of "Don Giovanni"--Mozart's opera about an irresistible libertine, the women he seduces and his ultimate comeuppance--is what can't be pinned down.

"A lot of 'Don Giovanni' is about a certain divine ambiguity in almost all the characters and their relationship to this man," Steingraber said during a recent break in rehearsals at Opera Pacific, which is presenting the work this week at the Orange County Performing Arts Center.

"Many questions are not answered explicitly by [librettist] Lorenzo da Ponte and Mozart. That ambiguity is useful for stage directors. If one is really going to present something that is intriguing and filled with dramatic tension, I suspect one would engage those divine ambiguities."

Divine, literally, because Giovanni is called to justice from beyond the grave by the man he kills in the opening scene (while trying to seduce the man's daughter). Between these two points, various characters attempt to reveal or discover the truth about Giovanni, and encounter the limits of their own codes of honor.

Steingraber tries to focus these issues by staging "Don Giovanni" on one unit set, paring the opera "to the essential visuals." It was created to his specifications by Riccardo Hernandez.

"One could divide 'Giovanni' into many scenes, minimally nine or 10, but also [as many as] 20," Steingraber said. "So often 'Giovanni' becomes an opera about scene changes. I've sat through many such productions.

"But very little of it is about place. It's about character and interaction. I wanted to focus on the narrative, and to aid the flow and pacing and the impact of the piece by never having to pause more than a few moments in moving from one scene to another."

Lighting and period costumes (by David C. Woolard, based on 18th century silhouettes) help define the changes.

"There's a scene-by-scene progression of the costumes, which help tell the story in their own way, but not in a way the audience becomes aware of," Steingraber said.

The production, which received mixed reviews at its premiere, has four partners--Pittsburgh Opera, which gave the premiere in October; Opera Pacific; New York City Opera, which gets it after the Costa Mesa run; and Tulsa Opera, which inherits it last.

"We are playing every note of every set piece," Steingraber said. "There are two minor cuts in the recits, [narrative], maybe a minute's worth, standard cuts that I've never heard performed.

"We are doing both Ottavio arias, both Elvira arias. We are doing the epilogue. It has to be done. Ultimately, the opera is a comedy if you're taking the classic definition. It has a good ending for all the characters but one. Even with Giovanni, it's an ambiguous ending. He doesn't just die. Nothing is left as a corpse on the stage. It's something more theatrical than that. That's why it's so important to use the epilogue."

These days, Steingraber, 35, spends virtually all his directing career in opera. Local audiences have seen his productions of Bellini's "The Capulets and the Montagues" (1999) and Rossini's "Cinderella" (2000) at Los Angeles Opera. But he didn't start out as an opera director.

"My formative years were spent studying music and theater separately," he said.

He grew up in Chicago and went to Indiana University, where he majored in theater and psychology. But since childhood, he also had been studying piano and voice.

"Having left the university and getting my start in a career of theatrical direction, I realized that my training in music could be wedded with theater into one pursuit, which was opera directing."

His first opera was also one by Mozart--"Cosi fan tutte" for Indianapolis Opera and Opera Memphis in 1993.

"If I had to tell one anecdote about that production, it's that one critic said, '"Cosi" is a comedy. It must be funny. This wasn't funny at all.' The second critic said, 'The audience was laughing so hard, you missed many key moments. It's a shame there was hilarity all evening.' So how much humor was in the production?

"This production has fewer laughs than some because of the focus. It's all about one thing--the focus on character, their hopes and situations and interactions. Hopefully we are engaged in the characters enough to find genuine humor.

"The great thing about 'Don Giovanni' is, as someone once said, if it's done well, we can see ourselves in every single character. Don Ottavio, who wants to do the honorable thing. Giovanni, who has a lust for life and perhaps a fear of mortality. Leporello, as the abused person who can't get [himself] out of a bad situation."

Speaking of abused people who can't get themselves out of bad situations, how does he feel about the common belief that this has become the age of the opera director, not necessarily to the betterment of opera?

"I'm uncomfortable with the phrase because it sounds like there's been a coup," he said. "I don't think that's the truth. Directors are taking their place at the table or being allowed to work as equal collaborators. I appreciate the prevailing attitude that directors are stepping to the fore. I don't like the implication that there is a hierarchy."

*

"DON GIOVANNI," Opera Pacific, Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Dates: Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday, 7:30 p.m.; Jan. 27, 2 p.m. Prices: $25-$175. Phone: (800) 346-7372.

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