Gabriel Preisser as Don Giovanni. Photo by Vera Mariner.
At its best, Skylark Opera Theatre’s Don Giovanni is an extraordinary way to experience a beloved Mozart opera. The site-specific performance at the Women’s Club of Minneapolis provides ample opportunities for shaking up the traditional opera-going experience, which are ably exploited with a talented cast. The production is underlain by an interesting conceit: Don Giovanni as the owner of a big city nightclub during the Prohibition.
Virtues include ample vocal talent, an up-close-and personal sonic experience, a stellar final scene in Act I, and a rocket-paced bender of a finale. The production vision is strong, and the transfers between spaces at the Women’s Club are smooth and swift. As Don Giovanni/Donny G., Gabriel Preisser embraces the character’s excesses, capturing attention and powering through difficult spots with a mix of charisma and force. Andrew Wilkowske’s Leporello is a brilliant straightman to Preisser’s overgrown frat boy (see below), and the two bring to life some unexpected comedy in moments. Tess Altiveros as Donna Elvira injects vocal and visual fire into every scene into which she appears. On opening night, the teasing and flirting with the audience – as well as gems like hearing David Blalock (as Don Ottavio) sing mere feet away – were clear hits.
There are also a number of problems with this production. First and foremost is the English libretto, whose scansion does not fit smoothly with the vocal melodies; misplaced accents are numerous and distracting. Some degree of this is usually to be expected when presenting opera in translation, but the prevalence of false rhymes and unnecessary slurring makes the recitative rather clunky. As spoken dialogue, this would be of little issue – the libretto would be fine for redoing Don Giovanni as a singspiel – but in its current usage, it’s frequently quite distracting.
Another issue with this libretto is the frequency of mismatches between what the libretto and staging depict. In several scenes, characters’ real-time descriptions of on-stage actions contradict the staging, which is harder to forgive in an English libretto created/customized for the occasion than in the original Italian. Some passages – including much of the first half of Act I – are discordant in tone with others, and appear to be artifacts from the writing team’s previous work setting the opera on a college campus.) Then there are oddities like Don Ottavio singing “Remove her father’s body, she must not see him like this” with Donna Anna (Karin Wolverton) literally right in front of him, or clearly anachronistic fashion mag pages in Don Giovanni’s famous catalogue (which, to be fair, were only visible to the first six rows).
Details of the direction and libretto aside, opening night’s audience was clearly quite taken with the setup and execution. One wonders if the opera would have been better-begun in media res – the action picks up so dramatically halfway through Act I. The Act I dining room scene is a brilliant and dynamic showcase of acting, singing, and staging. A flashlight-fueled scene in Act II is inspired comedy direction at its finest, as is an unexpected interjection of vaudevillian human dummy comedy. The final Commendatore scene is that much more powerful from hearing Benhamin Sieverding’s basso tones quiver-inducingly close.
Don Giovanni and last winter’s The Tragedy of Carmen make clear that Skylark’s new direction is not opera business as usual, and that the hallmarks going forward include English presentations, twists on the familiar, and up-close-and-personal delivery. Here’s hoping that more attention to detail comes with it.