An ailing Lorin Maazel was nowhere to be seen at Saturday’s opening performance of “Don Giovanni” at the Castleton Festival (he didn’t conduct the previous week’s “Madama Butterfly” either, but attended and addressed the audience). Given the extent to which Castleton’s viability rests on both his artistic stature and his fundraising contacts, his indisposition invokes serious concern for the future.
There were many strengths in this “Don G,” but the fill-in conductor, Salvatore Percacciolo, was not among them. Although he is not a novice, his slack pacing, the frequent imprecisions between stage and pit, and his inability to impose real discipline on the orchestra were continuous drawbacks to an otherwise high-level production. The slackness was at times mirrored in the staging, where the first meeting of the two principal females and the unmasking of Leporello in the second act went by with only a fraction of the drama conveyed, the singers remaining stationary far too often.
Other scenes, though, were well-drawn, especially the Act I finale — a three-ring circus where the eyes and ears were pulled every which way — and the cemetery scene, which in its blending of terror and silliness encapsulated Mozart’s enigmatic subtitle for the opera, a “Dramma Giocoso.”
The cast was mostly excellent, particularly on the female side. Among the men, Javier Arrey in the title role and Tyler Simpson as Leporello had the advantage of similar build (which, for once, made the identity-switching in Act II not look ridiculous), and both had healthy, if not terribly colorful, voices. Simpson was the more assured dramatically — Arrey sometimes resorted to sitcom mugging — though his voice carries a slight rasp in certain registers. Arrey delivered a terrific Champagne Aria (sung rather than belted) but didn’t fully capture the melting beauty of “Dei vieni.” Tyler Nelson as Ottavio won over the crowd with his clean, sincere singing. Ottavio’s two arias (and two-dimensional character) often seem tedious, but here the musical delivery more than compensated. Nicholas Masters didn’t bring much to Masetto vocally, but he was part of the best dramatic team by far. I don’t know if the voice exists that can do justice to the Commendatore. Certainly, Christopher Besch’s young instrument lacked the massive, otherworldly quality the part demands, although there was nothing to fault him on.
The three women gave unfailing musical pleasure all evening. Chloé Moore’s clarion entrance (as Anna) jolted an already electric scene. Her voice has a wealth of shades, which she uses with intelligence. Although the coloratura of “Non mi dir” was approximate, in all other respects her voice was the most attractive and well-developed in the young cast. She also managed to sing equally well curled up in a fetal position as she relived her attempted rape. Jennifer Black (Elvira) was nearly as good, navigating her Handelian vocals with aplomb. She had the evening’s first real show-stopper with “Ah, chi mi dice mai,” and she made her pivoting back to Giovanni in the second act poignant rather than ridiculous. Amanda Crider (Zerlina) wins the Oscar for best supporting actress. Her voice was good, if not quite as rich as her colleagues’, but the portrayal of a peasant girl moving between naïve wedding happiness, confused carnal desire, guilty bluster and finally tender erotic ministration was the highlight of the show; none of the other principals combined acting and singing so effortlessly.
I’ve already spoken of the too-static staging in several scenes; one guesses that most of the limited preparation time went to the two finales. Sets, costumes and lighting were all spare but effective. It seemed odd that the men of the chorus dressed in modern street clothes when no one else did, but whatever. Whether they were Maazel’s or director Giandomenico Vaccari’s concepts, though, I take particular issue with the framing of the opera. During the overture, the characters came onstage to “present” themselves, with helpful introductions on the subtitle screen — recalling cheesy openings of TV series such as “Gunsmoke” (and, by the way, Masetto and Zerlina are not “just married,” they are engaged). Completely unnecessary. Worse was the coda: Giovanni’s comeuppance is taken not by him, but by a doppelganger who shadows him at various points during the show. Giovanni stands by to watch, bemused, as the doppelganger is dragged off to Hades. He then provides cynical, pantomime commentary on the other characters’ denouements, upstaging them with a quick, final sexual conquest. So the moral of the story, I guess, is that as long as you stay true to your libertine principles, nothing bad will befall you.
Further performances will take place Saturday and July 18.
Battey is a freelance writer.