A `Don Giovanni' at odds with its locale. Sellars sets Mozart opera in a modern-day slum

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Peter Sellars has presented what he surely believes to be a thoroughly updated, contemporary viewpoint of Mozart's ``Don Giovanni'' - arguably the centerpiece of the PepsiCo SummerFare here. His production takes place in the squalor of some nameless (nevertheless very New York-like) Hispanic slum, populated by the street people of today.

Unfortunately, in trying to prove that this masterwork can speak to any and all generations, Mr. Sellars has overlaid the opera with visual and philosophical elements that do not fit very often with what Mozart and librettist Lorenzo da Ponte were trying to tell us.

Sellars continues to update the works he is staging, striving, for example, for sight gags that elicit instant titters without having much bearing on the characters or the action.

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Furthermore, he has set his ``Don Giovanni'' in a dour, dank hole - a vision with hard edges and precious little ambivalence. And yet ambiguity wedded to ironic contrast is what makes ``Giovanni'' such a remarkable, profound, and unsettling work.

Is Sellars intentionally trying to alienate, to create a hostile environment under the pretext of challenging an audience? While he pays lip service to respect for Mozart in his copious notes/plot-synopsis/interpretation (without which a good deal of Sellars's imagery would be simply incomprehensible), the results too often speak of facile solutions to infinitely difficult problems.

Because this ``Giovanni'' transpires in a slum, we have squalor, darkness, and drugs as the dominant image of the evening. We are asked to forget about da Ponte's very explicit class structure throughout the libretto, and to forget Mozart's music - often sunny and cheerful in fascinating contrast to the less-sunny attitudes and plot devices. (Though this cast would have been better off singing the piece in English, the Sellars unfoldment would have appeared all the more at cross purposes had the audience been able to understand what everyone was singing about.)

Crude sorts of images abound. Giovanni does not drink champagne in his celebrated aria. He throws the bottles against the church wall, then is given a walloping heroin fix by Leporello. Donna Anna has to ``shoot up'' to sing the coloratura passages of the aria ``Non mi dir.'' Leporello's ``Catalogue Aria'' is transformed into a despicable pornographic slide show of the women Giovanni has seduced throughout his career.

What is missing from the ``interpretation'' is any sense as to who the Don is, and why the people around him have anything whatsoever to do with him.

Perhaps we are to assume that this callow archetype is the collective doppelg"anger of all these troubled people - in other words, that he has no identity outside of what each one wills him to be.

But the reality Sellars has created is so cluttered with extraneous detail, so consumed with witticism and harshness of imagery as to make one finally unable, and even unwilling, to follow the thread of his argument.

The George Tsypin unit set is suitably depressing and ugly. James F. Ingalls's lighting relied on such isolated items as a bare light bulb, a fluorescent cross, and flashing construction lights. Stage lighting, per se, is kept to a frugal minimum, making this a dark production where faces are rarely visible.

In the title role, Kurt Ollmann is asked to lie on the ground, to move about in a perpetually catatonic state, and to strip to his shorts at the end of each act. His singing - small-scaled but musicianly - was essentially a secondary consideration.

Janet Brown as Zerlina gave the only fully conceived vocal account of the evening, and Jos'e Garc'ia proved a suitably stentorian Commendatore.

Ana Gloria Vazquez had magnificent moments as Anna, Elmore James was a strong, if often overbearing, Leporello, and John Daniecki an earnest Ottavio. Only Lorraine Hunt proved totally defeated by her part, but I doubt anyone could sing Elvira's ``Mi tradi'' writhing on her back.

Conductor Craig Smith led a fleet, deftly played, and engrossingly atmospheric account of this remarkable score. In fact, it so logically and clearly unfolded that one could not help but feel the contrast between pit and disheveled stage.

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