If one can ever hear a cross section of Academy of Vocal Arts' vocal talent at any given moment, it's in Mozart's Don Giovanni, that great but often impossible opera in which there are no minor roles. From the great seducer at the center of the opera to the cuckolds along the edges, Mozart offers one golden vocal opportunity after another.
While AVA's current state is typically good, to judge from Saturday's opening night - with possible stars but others who promise to maintain the artform's vocal foundations - the good news extended to the less starry moments, such as the beautifully blended ensembles and unusually articulate recitatives. In this world of quickly assembled opera, those are luxury elements that give the star flourishes more power for having dramatic context. Also, the opera's rich musical variety is more likely to be appreciated.
Overall, the Jeffrey Buchman-directed production made the most of the tiny Helen Corning Warden Theater at AVA's Spruce Street headquarters, with mildly erotic paintings that set the right atmosphere - amid cleverly planned entry and exit points in an opera about improbable chance meetings and quick escapes, as the seducer Don Giovanni cuts a wide swath through the women of Europe but ends up literally going to hell.
Among the opening-night cast, the most vocal charisma was heard in the most miscast singer - Allegra De Vita as the peasant girl Zerlina. She had the necessary notes but lacked ease in the faster passage work and never captured the relative innocence of the character itself. But give her some Mahler songs, maybe even Wagner's Erda, and you might have a star. As Donna Anna, Vanessa Vasquez had a particularly vibrant tone, and if one couldn't say quite the same about Anush Avetisyan's Donna Elvira, the total theatrical and musical package was magnetic. Thanks to his high-personality voice, Jorge Espino was a tough, blue-collar Masetto and Anthony Schneider a particularly commanding Commendatore. Jonas Hacker ably navigated the often-badly-sung arias of Don Ottavio.
And the male leads? Neither Daniel Noyola as Don Giovanni nor Andre Courville as his servant Leporello had voices with the kind of tonal variety you'd want in these central roles. But any deficits were far less noticable when the singers were strongly engaging with the words and their characters - which was most of the time.
One clear-cut consumerist draw for any AVA Don Giovanni is conductor Christofer Macatsoris, though not for the overture's key-of-d-minor bloodbath that one might expect from hearing his Verdi. Such broad strokes are less appropriate with Mozart, so in any given moment, Macatsoris delivered a confluence of motifs, each with its own kind of tension, contributing to a total effect that keeps your ears standing at attention. At times, Macatsoris recalled the 1950s Mozart of Wilhelm Furtwangler, with high-magnitude sonorities, occasional moments of suspended animation and more contemplative tempos.
That's not to suggest Macatsoris is imitating his elders, but that he took a parallel path as part of a larger concept. The opera's more public moments went at a tight clip, though the more psychological music was, well, more psychological. It's a testament to Macatsoris' overall pacing that the opera's epilogue, sometimes considered superfulous, felt indispensible. Often, conductors are too busy accommodating the singers to project a strong overall concept of the opera. But Macatsoris teaches his singers the opera his way - and conducts likewise.