San Francisco Lyric Opera’s ‘Don Giovanni’

Mozart on the intimate stage

This past weekend the San Francisco Lyric Opera opened its 2009 season with Mozart’s Don Giovanni. The singing was excellent, ringing through the resonant acoustics of Cowell Theater; the fine cast was led by the formidable talents of Romanian-born baritone Eugene Branconeauvu.

Branconeauvu first appeared on Bay Area stages while an Adler Fellow at San Francisco Opera in 2005–2006, and he has continued appearing on those stages while developing a broader career. He has a vibrant baritone with a focused vibrato that suggests an intense emotionalism even in the midst of humor. And it is with humor and a quixotic lightness that he interprets the shadowy motivations of opera’s most well-known seducer. He’s also handy with a sword, making the onstage sword fights more convincing than most.

Don Giovanni is a man of intricate and contradictory emotions, and one can interpret the role—all of the roles—in the opera in any number of ways, a key factor in the opera’s enduring popularity. Stage director David Cox has chosen to emphasize the buffa in Mozart’s opera, especially in the character of Leporello, sung by bass-baritone Razvan Georgescu, who takes on the role of Giovanni’s servant and alter ego with vigorous comic physicality. (Two Romanian baritones on one stage tucked in the marina of San Francisco? There may be an unborn opera in the convergence of their paths.)

Physical comedy is also featured in the role of Zerlina, sung fetchingly by soprano Krista Wigle, who puts an extra measure of seduction into “Batti, batti, o bel Masetto,” disarming her husband’s jealous anger. Masetto is charmingly sung by Igor Viera, clearly delighted by the wayward Zerlina’s attentions.

The sobriety and dignity necessary to serve as a bridge between the comic and the moral intents of the opera reside in Donna Anna and her fiancé, Don Ottavio. Soprano Duana Demus Leslie and tenor Ashley Faatoalia had voices well matched in sweetness and warm clarity. Faatoalia sang “Il mio tesoro” with a tenderness that belied the resolve of the lyrics but was like honey on the tongue. Leslie rode through the challenging role of Donna Anna with grace and an aristocratic aplomb.

Kali Wilson sang the vexed Donna Elvira and a lovely second-act “Mi tradì quell’alma ingrata.”

When Sergei Zadvorny stepped forward, painted in gray and white and stiff-legged, as the marble statue of the Commendatore, and sang the ominous “Don Giovanni” that signals the seducer’s doom, I felt a chill run across my skin. I confess to being surprised; after all, I’ve seen this opera how many times? But there is something unmatched about opera in a more intimate setting. While it’s true that the potential for spectacle is lost, there is a sense of real life experience that is restored. The audience can feel the flesh-and-blood presence of the singers more strongly; it isn’t as if the action of the work takes place on the other side of a great divide of space and at a distance marked by centuries. The detached high mysteries of the grand stage fall away, and the result is a softer, more approachable encounter between players and watchers.

Don Giovanni is easily, and perhaps more dramatically, presented on the stages of larger houses—its moral quest and apocalyptic finale are suited for spectacle. But the company that chooses to present it in the intimate house allows us entry into its world and secures us a place in the honesty of its concerns.

—Jaime Robles

Originally appeared in the Piedmont Post