Review: UK Opera's 'Don Giovanni' doesn't live up to troupe's promise

rcopley@herald-leader.comMarch 7, 2014 

  • IF YOU GO

    Don Giovanni

    What: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's opera presented by the University of Kentucky Opera Theatre.

    When: 7:30 p.m. March 6-8, 2 p.m. March 9

    Where: Lexington Opera House, 401 W. Short St.

    Tickets: $30.50-$46.50. Available at (859) 233-3535, Lexingtonoperahouse.com or Ticketmaster, 1-800-745-3000 or Ticketmaster.com. Student tickets $11, available at the door with valid student ID.

Don Giovanni is an opera ingeniously composed by one of the masters of the form, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and skillfully written by a master librettist, Lorenzo Da Ponte.

It's a story of love, sex, murder, betrayal, vengeance and damnation — the sort of stuff that fuels the dramas that blaze across our movie and TV screens.

The University of Kentucky Opera Theatre's production of Don Giovanni gets only the first part of that equation.

In theater and music, the term precious refers to a venerable work that is treated delicately, like Shakespeare's plays, with actors delivering the beautiful language with little feeling for what is really being said.

The first clue that that's where this production of Don Giovanni was going came in the first scene at Thursday's opening performance, as Donna Anna knelt over the body of her father. Shareese Arnold's voice was precise and lovely, even ethereal. But by her demeanor, you would never know she had just discovered that her father had been killed by the man who had raped her.

That set the tone for the production, directed by Richard Kagey, that rarely took its dramatic or comedic opportunities.

As the peasant couple Zerlina and Masetto, Laikin Simons and Ronald Wilbur provided several of those rare moments, particularly Simons' Batti, batti o bel Masetto. Through her charming performance, we saw Wilbur's anger and defenses break down. It was singers playing young lovers, not iconic characters. (The downside was that we were asked to accept Zerlina asking Masetto to beat her as punishment for alleged infidelity and to ignore the inherent issues of domestic violence. Don Giovanni was written in the 1780s.)

Evan LeRoy Johnson is arresting in his performance as Don Ottavio, Donna Anna's fiance. His Act II aria Il mio Tesoro is a vocal highlight of the evening, full of passion and flourish.

Arnold has her moments, particularly the scene in Act I when she expresses rage upon discovering that Giovanni was her violator and her father's killer.

As Leporello, William Clay Thompson has some strong moments. But the "Catalog Aria," Madamina, il catalogo è questo, is saddled with too much business to maximize the comedy of Leporello telling Donna Elvira about all of Giovanni's conquests.

In the title role, Thomas Gunther demonstrates much of the deviousness but little of the charm that made his character such a babe magnet.

The cast reviewed here performs again Saturday night. A second cast performs Friday night and in the production's final show Sunday afternoon.

When one is left so bored by a show that runs 31/4 hours, it's easier to notice other things that might have slipped by: sloppy supertitle work, the number of mistaken identities this show expects the audience to accept.

Late in Act II, we have a moment when characters are singing that they don't recognize each other even though they're within arm's reach of one another.

Suspension of disbelief has its limits.

Here's the thing: UK Opera has established itself as a program that trains singer actors that it isn't enough to just sing the notes when your job is telling a story. So it was disappointing to see so much stand-and-sing in this production.

This is the second year that UK Opera has staged a huge, iconic American musical in the fall and has done it very well: The Phantom of the Opera in 2012 and Les Misérables last year. But both years, the subsequent winter operas — last year it was Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro — felt like afterthoughts.

If Misérables fans came back for this show, it's unlikely that it would sell opera as a compelling art form for the 21st century.

Rich Copley: (859) 231-3217. Email: rcopley@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @copiousnotes.

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