By Leslie Kandell
NEW YORK – Changing the look and time period of operas is catnip to many directors. Recently the Berlin Staatsoper whisked Falstaff into the gritty underground culture of modern-day Berlin, and the Metropolitan Opera demonstrated that Così fan tutte can be imagined as happening in Coney Island.
Baruch Performing Arts Center was a welcoming venue for the fourth Heartbeat Opera Festival, which gives opera a veritas or noir look. This year’s offerings feature Mozart’s Don Giovanni and Beethoven’s Fidelio. Don Giovanni, seen on opening night, May 2, has neon motel signs, hospital registration forms, and pot parties. Fidelio includes choruses from six actual prisons.
Pre-show speeches to the audience about “radical, sexy, intimate venues for 21st-century audiences” paraphrased the program notes, as did a post-performance plea for support.
Ingenious production values (Louisa Proske, director; Kate Noll, set designer) included a landscape painted on the lower part of a rear curtain, with English titles on the upper part. On a revolving square platform (that is, revolved by one singer or another), one side becomes, say, the exterior of a building, hiding set changes behind it in a square bedroom with imagined walls.
You could also see through its window, on the other side of which, near the end of the 2½-hour opera, Don Giovanni is prepped for electrocution (modern fiery pit) by hospital workers, before the Commendatore-as-doctor, holding a clipboard, enters and does the job.
The score was arranged by Daniel Schlosberg, and saying “arranged” is not just whistling “Dixie.” It was hugely cut down and redone for a chamber orchestra that prominently features the clarinet – one of Mozart’s primary instrumental interests in that late period of his short life – as played by Gleb Kasanevich. Sparse orchestration lent that instrument a screaming quality at times, though the smoothly seductive bass clarinet fit nicely into “Batti, batti.”
The classy combo was harpsichord, string quartet, double bass, clarinet, and bass clarinet, which, in addition to “Batti, batti,” had an important role in the penultimate statue scene. Jacob Ashworth led the ensemble.
Baruch uses its exceptional diversity as a recruiting tool, so it should come as no surprise that the cast of this production reflected the college’s emphasis on community engagement. Thus the Leporello (Matthew Gamble) is black, as are the cellphone-using Don Ottavio (Keith Browning) and the Mozart baritone Barrington Lee (the statue and doctor, who triples as Masetto). Donna Elvira (George London award-winning soprano Felicia Moore) was substantial in every way, vigorously demanding vengeance and warning off the flailing Donna Anna (Leela Subramaniam, who covers Papagena and other roles at the Met).
While the voices were well proportioned, no character was appealing, which was apparently the intent of the direction and of the costumes (by Beth Goldenberg). Don Giovanni – tall, super-skinny, skilled Baroque bass-baritone John Taylor Ward – easily climbed a ladder to the structure’s roof for a smoke while commenting on Donna Elvira’s anguished aria below. (Leporello’s aria, with the endless notebook list of the Don’s women, made her throw up.)
Soprano Samarie Alicea, a slutty Zerlina in wedding mini-dress, sky-high heels, and a black leather jacket, can sing (adding a few ornaments) and chew gum at the same time.
Leporello wears bunny ears at the wild party; the costumed harpsichordist (Aya Hamada) slips from her side-stage orchestra seat into the square room to play keyboard; and the crowd, high on pot and booze, dances (not the minuet) to the minuet. The partiers finally seize and strip Don Giovanni, who performs the rest of the opera in his fitted underwear.
The voices were warmer after intermission, when the ensemble is sitting in a present-day hospital waiting room where someone is reading The New Yorker. Donna Elvira has white test clips on her fingers. During her aria (with a few ornaments) “Mi tradi quell’alma ingrata,” a nurse takes notes while another works machine controls and the band makes mechanical sounds.
Spotlighted, the Don stands in the square room, arms akimbo, to sing the Serenade while a masked nurse’s aide passes something like a huge Slinky over him. The clarinet carries on oddly over pizzicato strings. A foghorn sounds, and the cell is lighted in ominous red.
In the waiting room, the assembly of the wronged watches Don Giovanni’s demise on a television monitor. The opera ends with a forlorn clarinet wail in a distant key – or maybe no actual key. Thank goodness for Mozart. He saves us all.
This production continues through May 12, overlapping Fidelio (through May 13). For tickets and more information, go here.
Leslie Kandell has contributed to The New York Times, Musical America, Musical America Directory, and The Berkshire Eagle.