With Opera Philadelphia commissioning something new seemingly every few weeks, one must inquire how much attention is being paid to something old, like
. Core audiences don't like being neglected. At Friday's opening at the Academy of Music, this
was more consistently good than ones in past seasons by Opera Philadelphia, but there was still a ways to go.
For all its greatness, the opera is a strangely plotted series of seductions with more independently moving parts than most other operas. Characters come and go by chance, and if there isn't a weak link, the piece is operating in a rare state of grace.
A magnetic presence in the title role, however, is mandatory, since the music Mozart wrote for him is not what makes the opera great. While the other characters have arias so intimate that one can feel like Donna Elvira's psychotherapist, Don Giovanni is an abstract, unknowable Dionysian force.
Casting the up-and-coming Elliot Madore in the title role was emblematic of the larger production package: He filled the right shoes but wasn't quite right. The voice was more soft-grained than virile. His costuming suggested a 1970s version of Mick Jagger but his aggressive rock-star physicality was at odds with a character who attracts rather than pursues. He descended into hell via a laundry chute of sorts. Don Giovanni has fared far worse.
Since Madore's voice is on the small side, the set design's lack of acoustic focus was particularly apparent. The stage (directed and designed by Nicholas Muni) was full of wide-open spaces with Goya-esque paintings of women, and then later on, frames with nothing in them at all, suggesting the inner emptiness of Don Giovanni's sexual addiction.
Michelle Johnson, a local favorite from Academy of Vocal Arts, resorted to forcing her voice into less-than-attractive sounds as Donna Anna. Joseph Barron, a mostly engaging Leporello, was barely audible when positioned away from the lip of the stage. Cecelia Hall and Wes Mason were perfectly good as Zerlina and Masetto.
But the only truly compelling singing came from characters that are the most likely not to go well: Amanda Majeski's Donna Elvira had wonderful vocal and psychological specificity instead of the more typical blustering, while David Portillo's Don Ottavio was just so vocally beautiful that you didn't care how dramatically peripheral his character can be.
In music from this period, conductor George Manahan tends to create tension by cultivating a somewhat fat sonority moving at great speed - though he never let the orchestra cover the acoustically challenged singers.
Postscript: Don Ottavio's aria "Il mio tesoro" is heard out of its usual sequence, right after intermission, reportedly to keep it from interrupting the escalating tension of its original position, which is deep into Act II. So one got to hear Portillo sooner rather than later.
Music by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Libretto by Lorenzo da Ponte. Directed and designed by Nicholas Muni. Costumes by David Burdick. Opera Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by George Manahan.
Don Giovanni ... Elliot Madore
Donna Anna ... Michelle Johnson
Donna Elvira ... Amanda Majeski
Don Ottavio ... David Portillo
Leporello ... Joseph Barron
Zerlina ... Cecelia Hall
Masetto ... Wes Mason
Commendatore ... Nicholas Masters
Friday and Sunday at the Academy