In the composer Hector Berlioz’s memoirs, he recounts traveling through Germany in the mid-19th century. Away from the refinement of Paris, he saw countless performances where the orchestra was fortified by the local military band, or a traveling opera company joined by members of the local music society in the pit. While rough-hewn around the edges, these performances were not without their charms and often exhibited a directness and gusto not found in the halls of the Paris Opera. Twin Cities Fringe Opera’s production of Don Giovanni is much akin to these performances.
For those not familiar with the company, TCFO made its debut in Spring 2014 with a production of Richard Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos. This was followed by a crowdfunded production of Engelbert Humperdinck’s Hänsel und Gretel, powered by Kickstarter and performed at the Capri Theater in North Minneapolis. Now, the company has continued its reverse time travel through the repertoire to land on Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s classic Don Giovanni. Director Amanda Carlson’s staging is not the classic period setting, but instead recasts the work as a 1950s-era tale of sexual predation on a college campus. It’s an effective device, accomplished primarily by freely adapted supertitles and character delivery, and embraces the darker sides of several characters.
In musical terms, the cast is strong vocally and well-sized for the Anne Simley Theatre, a space of comparable size to the regional theatres that Berlioz saw on his German tours. This gives an appealing immediacy to the sound (the best seats are two rows back from center) without being so close and personal as to lose scope. Overall, the production lighting is a bit dark – excusable, perhaps, for much of the action set at night, but more problematic in the finale when the pale white of the spectral statue is only actually visible at curtain time. In future productions, more variety in costuming would be helpful; too many disguises are limited to putting on the same mask again to fool the same character.
With a Don Giovanni whose characterization (not the performance, which was fine) is as unappealing as that given Erik Erlandson, a strong Leporello is essential. Doug Freeman does not disappoint, with an excellent catalog aria to invigorate the early scenes of Act I. The twisted Giovanni-Leporello dynamic is delightfully discomforting to watch, and an important thread in retaining the evening’s comic strands, especially in Act II. Giovanni/Erlandson coaching a reluctant Leoprello/Freeman on seducing Donna Elvira (Amy Wolf) is a highlight.
This is a hands-on production of Don Giovanni in the physical sense, especially in Zerlina (Lauren Lammer)’s sweetly seductive delivery of “Vedrai carino” to Masetto (a glowering Eric Sorum). John deCausmeaker’s portrayal of Don Ottavio is not the classic, annoying putz; this Ottavio is a tweedy guy who’s out of his depth but trying to rise to the task, which is much more appealing than normal. deCausemeaker gets both “Il mio tesore” and “Dalla sua pace” to sing, one in each act; while the insertion of the latter messes with the pacing of Act II, the audience raised no objection to hearing deCausemeaker’s melodious tenor voice again in his best vocal moment of the evening. This addition is balanced by omitting the Act II epilogue, which increases the impact of the excellent and polished finale. Stephen Cunningham is suitably intimidating as the Commendatore’s statue-cum-ghost, and the orchestra is on its best toes for the end.