‘Don Giovanni’ at Berkeley Opera

Eugene Brancoveanu in “Don Giovanni” at Berkeley Opera

A mighty gorgeous voice

One of the best things about living in the Bay Area is enjoying the talents of the many artists who live and perform here. We are especially blessed when it comes to singers and musicians. Events like the Berkeley Opera’s production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, which opened on February 20 in El Cerrito, just don’t happen other places.

Top of the list of things that don’t happen elsewhere is Eugene Branconeauvu, who sang the role of the scalawag womanizer after whom the opera is named. Branconeauvu was an Adler fellow for two seasons, during which time he sang several roles with the San Francisco Opera, and he has sung locally as well as at the Los Angeles Opera, Carnegie Hall, San Francisco Symphony and numerous venues here and in Europe.

Not only is Branconeauvu endowed with a massive voice of opulent color and warmth, but he is also an excellent actor with a genius for physical comedy and an irrepressible vigor and energy. He easily fit in with the SF Opera’s world-class singers and was brilliant as Frank in its production of Die Fledermaus, when drunk from the evening’s celebrations, he wove his way across the stage, falling, rolling and somersaulting with the boneless ease of the truly inebriated.

All of the baritone’s talents worked well with Director Mark Streshinsky’s concept of Mozart’s quicksilver masterpiece. Streshinsky conceives of Giovanni as a comic creature—an in-your-face bad boy, who struts and swaggers his way through the lives of others, mostly women but occasionally the lovers and parents of those women, and who wreaks havoc because of his inability to imagine the world as anything but a large playpen fitted out for his personal pleasure. The publicity photos for this production—black-and-white semi-abstractions by photographer and reviewer Ching Chang—picture Branconeauvu as Don Giovanni reflected in a mirror, the ultimate symbol of the narcissist.

The audience was delighted with the director’s take on this durable classic, which set the opera in a contemporary context of cell phones, short skirts, and yoga mats. His vision was aided and abetted by Jeremy Knight’s video projections, whose visual reworking of Leporello’s famous catalog of Giovanni’s conquests (“Madamina, il catalogo è questo”) projected the rake’s cell-phone contacts list, complete with famous icons of women from Whistler’s mother to Botticelli’s Venus. Even more revealing were the maps of France, Germany, Italy and Spain onto which sprung forests of push pins, each designating a sexual conquest.

The other singers were talented but none were on the same level as Brancoveaunu, either vocally or theatrically. Donna Anna was sung by Kaileen Miller, who has a remarkably beautiful voice; Aimée Puentes sang Donna Elvira with gusto—both singers had lovely tonal quality and were as much at ease vocally as is possible given the difficulty of singing these make ’em or break ’em roles. Elyse Nakajima also had a sweet voice but had a few pitch problems in her portrayal of Zerlina; lightness was her greater problem though: even singing pianissimo, Branconeauvu tended to cover her voice during their duet, “Là ci darem la mano” (“There we will entwine our hands”). Tenor Michael Desnoyers made an excellent Don Ottavio, with his beautiful voice surely and gravely following Mozart’s melodic lines. In general, the ensemble pieces were as lovely as could be.

The opera was performed at Performing Arts Theater, El Cerrito High School, a state-of-the-arts auditorium with a pit for the orchestra (that alone must brighten the day of the company’s creative staff), comfortable seating and good acoustics.

The orchestra performed well under the baton of Alexander Katsman.

OK, there was unevenness here and there throughout the production, but, all in all, it was a daring and unusual effort that kept the audience laughing and thrilled and was a credit to the participants.

—Jaime Robles

The Berkeley Opera continues its production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni at the Performing Arts Theater, on the El Cerrito High School campus, Friday, February 26, 8:00 p.m. and Sunday, February 28, 2:00 p.m.

Originally published in the Piedmont Post

Photo of Eugene Brancoveaunu as Don Giovanni by Ching Chang.