Opera Warhorses

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Review: Ildebrando D’Arcangelo Leads Strong “Don Giovanni” Cast – San Diego Opera, February 14, 2015

February 15th, 2015

Italian bass-baritone Ildebrando D’Arcangelo’s February 14 debut at the San Diego Opera proved to be a Valentine’s Gift to a community that succeeded in rescuing its endangered opera company.

D’Arcangelo was a saucy Don, his solid vocal performance and his matinee idol good looks confirming his inclusion in the wide world’s inner circle of contemporary interpreters of this iconic role. [See also ]Ildebrando D’Arcangelo’s Roguish Libertine, James Conlon’s Impressive Conducting, in Insightful “Don Giovanni” – Los Angeles Opera, September 22, 2012.]

[Below: Don Giovanni (Ildebrando d’Arcangelo) is astride the effigy of the man he killed earlier; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]


D’Arcangelo’s supporting cast was strong. All six of the supporting roles were in good hands (and voices).

Those of Noble Rank

The threesome of noble persons (with over a half dozen of opera’s most serene arias between them) consisted of Ellie Dehn as Donna Anna; Paul Appleby as Don Ottavio and Myrtò Papatanasiu as Donna Elvira. Reinhard Hagen was a stalwart Commendatore.

The well-traveled production by Nicholas Muni, described below, centers around Donna Anna to a greater extent than most productions.

Thus, it was appropriate Anna should be sung by Ellie Dehn, who has proven to be an accomplished Mozartean.

[Below: Donna Anna (Ellie Dehn, left) and Don Ottavio (Paul Appleby, right) swear an oath of vengeance after her father’s murder; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]


Even before this performance, I had reported on Ellie Dehn’s San Francisco Opera appearances (significantly, all conducted by the company’s music director Nicola Luisotti) in what many would consider the lead soprano role in the three Mozart operatic masterpieces with Lorenzo Da Ponte libretti. There her beautiful tone and flawless coloratura were enlisted in performances with dramatic intensity.

[See A Beautifully Sung, Engaging “Cosi fan Tutte” at San Francisco Opera – June 9, 2013 and Meachem, Vinco, Lead Cast of Imaginatively Staged “Don Giovanni” – San Francisco Opera, October 23, 2011] and also Copley Directs, Luisotti Conducts, Sparkling “Nozze” Ensemble – San Francisco Opera, October 3, 2010.]

Donna Anna’s beloved, Don Ottavio was sung by lyric tenor Paul Appleby, who garnered San Diego Opera audience ovations with a nuanced, sweet-voiced Dalla sua pace and a rather more ferocious Il mio tesoro as Ottavio’s commitment builds to avenging all that has harmed Anna.

The two arias and a quite different assignment opening the 2013 Santa Fe Opera season [see Susan Graham’s Star Glows in Offenbach’s Sexy, Witty “Grand Duchess of Gerolstein” – Santa Fe Opera, June 28, 2013 has proven to me the versatility of this attractively-voiced artist.]

Production director/designer Muni is an advocate for moving Ottavio’s second aria from the middle to the beginning of the second act.

The dramatic flow in question is the great aria of Donna Elvira, stylishly sung by Greek soprano Myrtò Papatanasiu. Director Muni highlights Elvira’s conflicted emotions in which she seeks vengeance for Don Giovanni’s hurtful and humiliating abandonment of her and simultaneously desires to rekindle his affection for her.

Appleby’s Don Ottavio having sung Il mio tesoro to begin the second act, exits the stage. That leaves Zerlina and Donna Anna to listen empathetically to the first part of Mi tradi, at which point they leave her as she works through her emotions in the latter part of the aria.

(Even conceding that Director Muni has a point in Mi tradi’s dramatic flow and an indirect clue that Mozart agreed with moving Il mio tesoro, I don’t see it becoming standard practice.)

[Below: Donna Elvira (Myrtò Papatanasiu, right) recounts her plans to recover the affections and sexual attention of the Don to her elderly maid (left), although it turns out that it is the maid in whom the Don has become sexually interested; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]


Donna Elvira is such an outsized character that these days it comes with the territory that any artist singing the role will find herself with a lot of imaginative stage business. In this production, she has had a lot to drink before Leporello is ordered to disguise himself as Don Giovanni and woo her.

Meanwhile, in a truly non-traditional take on Don Giovanni’s sexual interests, Leporello’s subterfuge allows the Don to try to seduce Elvira’s grandmotherly maid.

Servants and Peasants

The lower classes are well-represented by the Leporello of Ashraf Sewailam, the Zerlina of Emily Fons and the Masetto of Kristopher Irmiter.

Mezzo-soprano Emily Fons, who has already made iher mark as Cherubino in another Mozart-Da Ponte opera in important venues [as an example, see: Santa Fe Opera Reverentially Revives “Nozze di Figaro” – June 29, 2013] effectively portrayed Zerlina. Momentarily star-struck in La ci darem la mano (her famous duet with D’Arcangelo’s Giovanni) by the Don’s promise to raise her to the noble ranks, she sympathetically performed her two solo arias to her understandably perturbed bridegroom, Masetto.

[Below: Don Giovanni (Ildebrando D’Arcangelo, left) is determined to seduce the peasant girl Zerlina (Emily Fons, right); edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]


Kristopher Irmiter was a likeable Masetto, while Ashraf Sewailam, in his biggest role at the San Diego Opera to date, was a convincing Leporello.

In this production, the catalogue of women’s names seduced by Giovanni is an enormously heavy book, that Elvira appropriates from Leporello. Now with possession of the “catalogue” in the hands of his potential conquests, the Don’s long list of seductions is scrutinized by Zerlina’s maid and then Zerlina, when the latter is under Elvira’s protection.

[Below: Leporello (Ashraf Sewailam, left) conveys some unexpected information to Donna Elvira (Myrtò Papatanasiu); edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera. ]


Notes on the Production

“Don Giovanni” is an enduring masterpiece, but one that abounds in ambiguities. It speaks in different ways to different times and differing world-views, and ideas about morality and the relationship of the sexes.

No one can ever know exactly what it is about, and therefore there will never be consensus on how it should be staged.

The lineage of Nicholas Muni’s production goes back longer than any other “Don Giovanni” production I’ve reviewed on these web-pages (those by Robert Falls at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, Gabriele Lavia at the San Francisco Opera, Sir David MacVicar at the San Francisco Opera, John Pascoe at the Washington National Opera, Chris Rader-Shieber at the Santa Fe Opera and Peter Stein at the Los Angeles Opera.)

The production ultimately dates to Minnesota Opera’s 1988 season and has been performed by the opera companies of Vancouver, Cincinnati (in three different seasons!), Baltimore, Portland, Austin and Philadelphia.

Its physical features include presentations of three large Goya paintings and a prominent painting of Donna Anna that is significantly involved in the staging. The raked floor contains numerous trapdoors that are used for the comic episodes and for the occasional appearance or disappearance of a character, The trapdoors have an important role in Don Giovanni’s ultimate fate.

[Below: a scene from the Nicholas Muni production of Mozart’s “Don Giovanni”; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]


Although the production predates the current reliance on projections in staging many operas, much of the look of the production is modern including extensive use of lighting effects. However, the production’s occasional glitzy look is counterbalanced (some might argue is often in conflict with) an obvious intent to portray elements of the social realities of imperial Spain as it existed in, say, the 17th century..

Notes on the Director’s Background Notes

I strongly recommend reading Muni’s “Director’s Notes” that appear on the San Diego Opera’s website under the “Don Giovanni” heading. There one will find a brilliant exposition of the social history of Catholic Spain. His essay is an account of Imperial Spain’s class structure; attitudes towards marriage, sex and dynastic survival; the status of women, and upper class concerns about how to seek justice, as opposed to vengeance. He explains the social conventions that make the mix of dances and dancers at Don Giovanni’s villa so revolutionary.

Muni explains how the entire libretto should be read, and translates the supertitles to be consistent with his explanations. He creates a pantomime at the opera’s beginning in which Don Giovanni has stalked Don Ottavio and has Leporello dress him so that Giovanni could be mistaken in the dark for Ottavio.

Muni also reflects on the psychology of Don Giovanni and of the women (based on the attitudes and mores of the period) whom he seduces. (Into the mix he adds episodes of simulated sex that will be familiar to those who watch certain Home Box Office dramatic series.)

I think one can appreciate Muni’s sound scholarship without agreeing with all of his dramatic choices. The source material for “Don Giovanni” was very old and well-known, every character and most situations existing in previous theatrical settings, including operas.

In my own essay “Don Giovanni in Bohemia: How the Community of Prague Assured Mozart’s Last Four Operas” that is printed in the San Diego Opera program for its “Don Giovanni” performances and that also appears on the San Diego Opera website (www.sdopera.com) I suggest that other things were on Mozart’s and Da Ponte’s minds than producing an accurate reflection of Imperial Spanish social customs.

That said, Muni’s ideas are always interesting, and are faithful to the masterpiece that Mozart and Da Ponte bequeathed to us.


I recommend the San Diego Opera performances of “Don Giovanni” enthusiastically, both for the veteran opera-goer and the person new to opera.

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