Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of men have sung Mozart's "Champagne Aria" from "Don Giovanni" in the shower; it's the kind of aggressively energetic music that goes well with vigorous scrubbing and lots of hot water. But I suspect that Jeffrey Buchman, now singing in the Summer Opera's "Don Giovanni," is the first to do it in front of an audience while sheltered from the scrutiny of voyeuses only by a strategically deployed towel and a chest-high translucent screen.
Director John Lehmeyer has updated the staging of this "Don Giovanni" and placed the action in and around a motel in Las Vegas. The year is 1966, the high-water mark of the miniskirt in an earlier round of fashion cycles, and this fact is reflected in Lehmeyer's costumes. Not only the young Zerlina (Courtenay Budd) and all her bridesmaids keep their hems well above their knees, so do the majestic Donna Anna (Fabiana Bravo) and the relentless seeker of justice Donna Elvira (Fleta Hylton). In Giovanni's great serenade, the usual mandolin accompaniment is heard, but what you see is a guitar strummed by Buchman while he engages in gyrations reminiscent of Elvis Presley. In the wedding and party scenes, the chorus responds to Mozart's exquisite music with the monkey, the swim and other discotheque dances.
If you like your Mozart operas with plenty of lace, ruffles and powdered wigs, you will have some problems with this "Don Giovanni." But David Lawton (using some rather brisk tempos) shapes the music skillfully, the orchestra (made up of students) is good, and Lehmeyer's auteur-style treatment gets directly to the heart of what "Don Giovanni" in any production is all about: sex and violence, obsession and excess. He also brings out the comedy in what Mozart called a dramma giocoso (what we might call "serious comedy") with unusual effectiveness.
This Don seems conceptually related to Don Corleone, or at least to one of his underlings. When he kills the Commendatore in the first scene, his weapon is a switchblade; he also drives a red convertible, used to seduce Zerlina in a hilarious, theatrically effective staging of the superb duet "La ci darem." And he wears a black leather jacket, like his bodyguard Leporello (Donald Sherrill, who is made to look remarkably like Jesse Ventura and acts accordingly).
At first I wondered whether Buchman's dramatic skills fell short of the role; his acting seemed curiously unexpressive, particularly compared with the three women in leading roles who sang and acted with power, vitality and rich, character-revealing body language. But his very lack of affect ultimately becomes a kind of characterization; under the colorful trappings of this production, there is a cold, hard vacuum at the heart of this Don Juan, and it is in the character himself, not in any director's interpretation. Throughout a long opera in which he is onstage almost constantly, Don Giovanni never makes a single gesture of kindness or consideration for another person except for purposes of deception. So the deadpan style works well.
In contrast, there is striking, complex acting by Bravo (surely the most amazing heroic soprano voice in town), Hylton (a singing actress very impressive in both departments) and Budd (who is both touching and hilarious as an actress and vocally just right for Zerlina). All three of the women are intensely ambivalent in their attitudes toward Don Giovanni. They know he is a scoundrel, but he has a magnetism they cannot resist. This interpretation works well for Elvira and Zerlina; it is clearly there in the words and music. It comes as more of a shock in the character of Anna, who seems to be trying simultaneously to punish and to seduce him, not only in the first scene but even after she recognizes him as her father's murderer.
Vocally, Buchman was uneven on opening night, Friday, in Catholic University's Hartke Theatre. He did well in recitatives and ensembles, had the required elan for the "Champagne Aria" and "La ci darem," but showed some vocal problems in the subtle Serenade. In general, the women were vocally more impressive than the men, though Sherrill, in the role of Leporello, stood out both as actor and singer, and Arturo Chacon's Masetto caught every vocal and theatrical nuance of the character. David Brundage's Commendatore had the proper statuesque qualities.
Don Ottavio is the most difficult role in the opera--a wimp who keeps saying the right things but never really accomplishes much. Jorge Orlando Gomez looked the part and got out the notes, but his voice is not that of an Ottavio. It is too bad that John Aler is busy elsewhere.
I would not want this to be the only "Don Giovanni" I ever saw, and probably not the first, but it plays well and it brings out, validly, aspects of the opera that are often underemphasized.
There will be repeat performances Wednesday, Friday and Sunday.
CAPTION: No powdered wigs in John Lehmeyer's production: Don Giovanni (Jeffrey Buchman) drives a red convertible and Zerlina (Courtenay Budd) wears her skirt well above her knees.
CAPTION: Donald Sherrill as Leporello and Fleta Hylton as Donna Elvira are talented singers and actors.