Tuesday, September 30, 2014

A History of Don Giovanni at Seattle Opera

Don Giovanni is an opera of infinite possibilities. It’s what scholars call an ‘open’ work, meaning open to interpretation; unlike, say, La bohème, the creators of Don Giovanni didn’t go about to create an opera with a fixed and focused message. Instead, they asked a lot of questions, which is why we like to present varying interpretations of open works like Don Giovanni, or Hamlet, or Wagner’s Ring. Engaging with these works is a great way to learn about ourselves—what we think, what we feel, what we believe. We’ll never finish ‘climbing the mountain’ with these rich masterpieces of theater. But when we put them on, we make a valiant effort to get up above the treeline and enjoy—not THE definitive view, but A possible view.

This fall, Seattle Opera presents its 8th production of Don Giovanni in 50 years. We’ve had charming Dons, sinister Dons, Dons both young and innocent and those more knowing or mature. We once had a Don who was a vicious murderer, while in other productions he’s been an okay guy with bad luck. And just as this wonderfully complicated central character has varied, so too have all the others; we’ve had milquetoast Ottavios and heroic Ottavios, crazily obsessive Elviras and noble, do-gooder Elviras, clownish, foolish Leporellos and classy, wise Leporellos.

We now have photos from all 8 Seattle Opera Don Giovanni productions posted on our historical mini-site, seattleopera50.com; here, click the header above each photo to explore those productions in more detail.

1968 Don Giovanni

Gabriel Bacquier as Don Giovanni
Des Gates, photo

The elegant French baritone Gabriel Bacquier was Seattle Opera’s first Don Giovanni. The production, which concluded the company’s fourth full season in Spring 1968, featured the second Seattle Opera appearance of Dame Joan Sutherland (Donna Anna), who had made her debut as Lakmé the year before. Sutherland’s husband, Richard Bonynge, conducted, and her favorite mezzo, Huguette Tourangeau, sang Zerlina.

1979 Don Giovanni

When they come for Don Giovanni at the end of Act One, Sherrill Milnes made a daring escape, swinging across his ballroom from a chandelier.
Chris Bennion, photo

One of America’s leading Verdi baritones in recent decades, Milnes first sang in Seattle in 1966 (Count di Luna). He returned to sing Mozart’s bad boy in a winter 1979 production infamous because an ongoing strike at Seattle Symphony meant there was no orchestra. Instead, Music and Education Director Henry Holt played the piano (and another pianist played the harpsichord; a choirster with a mandolin accompanied Giovanni’s serenade). Glynn Ross, Seattle Opera’s first General Director, recalled the audience reaction:

“I went out to the lobby to meet the audience thinking there would be some who would expect a refund for no orchestra. Instead, I had the surprise of my life as the enthusiastic audience lined up to crunch my hand in congratulations and the ladies smeared my cheeks with kisses. Why? Was it an anti-union audience? Not at all. They had had a whole new experience. The singers, exposed without orchestra, really delivered an ensemble performance and this singing defined the genius of Mozart to the audience in a whole new way. They had heard every nuance, every phrasing, every accent; it was a new experience.”

[Excerpt from Glynn Ross’s memoirs published in 50 Years of Seattle Opera]

1991 Don Giovanni

Gary Smith, photo

Certainly one of the most controversial productions in Seattle Opera history, Speight Jenkins’ first presentation of this masterpiece polarized the public. Some lamented the absence of fantasy and romance in Christopher Alden’s production; others applauded a thrilling piece of theater. The Don was Seattle’s favorite baritone from 1984 to 1994, Dale Duesing, who never left the stage. Sheri Greenawald gave a powerful performance as Donna Anna, and Gabor Andrasy, a regular baddie in Seattle Opera’s Ring in those days, thrilled as her father.

1999 Don Giovanni

Kurt Streit (Don Ottavio) threatens Giovanni, while demons lurk.
Gary Smith, photo

A few years later, Speight Jenkins presented Don Giovanni again—this time, set in a dark fantasy of eighteenth-century Spain. Flying Goya-esque monsters and sudden bursts of flame contributed to the dark atmosphere, as did the vile Don Giovanni of Jason Howard. With this production, Christine Goerke made her Seattle Opera debut as Donna Elvira. Husband-and-wife team of Sally Wolf and Kevin Langan joined the ensemble as Donna Anna and Leporello.

2000 Young Artists Program Don Giovanni

A young Morgan Smith as the Don.
Gary Smith, photo

The Young Artists Program took on Mozart’s ambitious dramedy in its third season. The two Don Giovannis, Morgan Smith and David Adam Moore, have both gone on to great success on the mainstage, as have Mary Elizabeth Williams (the Elvira) and Lawrence Brownlee (the Ottavio). Williams, who returns in January as Tosca, won Artist of the Year for her 2011 performance as Serena in Porgy and Bess. Brownlee, who won Artist of the Year in 2008 for Arturo in I puritani, now sings Don Ottavio in our current production—taking on this important role for the first time in his professional career.

2007 Don Giovanni

Marius Kwiecien (Giovanni) feeds Ailish Tynan (Zerlina) while Kevin Burdette (Masetto) fumes.
Rozarii Lynch, photo

The production we’re giving this fall, conceived by director Chris Alexander with costume designer Marie-Therese Cramer and set designer Robert Dahlstrom, first came to our stage in 2007. You can hear audio clips from that performance, conducted by Andreas Mitisek, on SoundCloud. Polish baritone Marius Kwiecien won Artist of the Year for his powerful Don Giovanni, and the intriguing production made Speight Jenkins’ list of his all-time favorites among the many operas he produced.

2011 Young Artists Program Don Giovanni

Jaqueline Bezek (Zerlina) and Erik Anstine (Leporello)
Rozarii Lynch, photo

Most recently, Seattle Opera’s Young Artists Production gave us a Fellini-esque Don Giovanni set in a 1950s Mediterranean world. Erik Anstine, who sang Leporello, now takes the role to the mainstage in the current production. In that YAP production, he (with Jacqueline Bezek as Zerlina) sang the oft-ommitted duet, “Per queste tue manine,” in which Zerlina, like Turandot, threatens to avenge the entire feminine gender by attacking Leporello. (He manages to escape; it’s an odd and amusing scene, but usually it’s cut because Mozart added it as an afterthought, the music isn’t particularly distinguished, and Don Giovanni is already a full-length opera!)

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