An impressive new choice at NYC Opera

The New York City Opera's new production of Mozart's "Don Giovanni" is strong on musical values and desperately weak on production ones. The last City Opera production was legendary in its inability to cope with Mozart's opera. This new one suffers from director John Cox's difficulty in coming to terms with Mozart's and librettist Da Ponte's vision.

Fortunately, in the pit, Julius Rudel had a firm grasp of that vision, and his account of the magnificent Mozart score spilled over with joy, tenderness, mirth, and drama. There were modified embellishments throughout Rudel's performance, as well as his genuinely witty, insightful work at the poorly amplified harpsichord.

Vocally, there were some distinguished and promising things from this mostly young, mostly American cast. Top honors go to Carol Vaness, a soprano well on her way to important things if she will become more consistent in her approach to her top register, and learn to pace herself more wisely. Throughout, fire-works exploded at most of the crucial moments, though she seemed to lose freshness after her big first-act aria. But her commitment to the drama and theatricality of this most demanding part were always impressive.

Samuel Ramey is very thin, lithe, and agile. His bass-baritone is robust, with a good cutting edge. But his Giovanni lacks the sort of charisma, depth, and deep-rooted appeal crucial to the role. His hail-fellow-well-met approach lacked menace, nor was he helped by some dreadful costumes and very negligible direction.

Esther Hinds sandm the role of Donna Elvira with strength, accuracy, and evenness, but dramatically she proved quite impervious to any emotion whatsoever. Faith Esham's lovely light mezzo fit Zerlina's music ideally, and she made much of this feisty peasant girl -- a fully rounded, boldly projected characterization. Her Masetto, Marc Embree, is a large fellow with a large baritone, and his Masetto proved winning rather than merely doltish.

Michael Rippon, in his NYCO debut, made Leporello rather a scruffy character (as per direction?) and sang with a certain lack of personality in his rather oddly produced bass voice. Carlos Chausson, the Commendatore, was not as forceful or accurate of intonation as one would have liked. Rockwell Blake, on his way to the Metropolitan next season, has the style and breath-control for Ottavio, but the inconsistency of vocal output and the constricted, oftern unpleasant quality of the actual sound robs him of cumulative impact or positive effect.

This always energetic cast proved unable to transcend the direction. There is little humor, much muddle. Noblemen and women move in singularly unnoble manner. This view of Seville is low on lavishness, presenting the rich and noble as devoid of means -- few servants, rather unprepossessing dwellings, and altogether severe, unostentatious, unlavish dress. Michael Annal's set is a cramped symmetrical unit, with steps, three columns on either side, and lots of drops depicting arches, paintings, walls, etc., that give no sense of openness or space. It has an unrelieved color scheme of dark rusts and earth browns.

The statue -- that wonderfully supernatural apparition -- appears first as just a head and half a shoulder on a huge marble block in a workshop rather than a graveyard. After a few hours (on the Mozart-Da Ponte time scale) he reappears , almost literally dropping in (gliding down the staircase) as the three-quarters-finished monument -- base and all.

We have had no sense of the Don's real amorality, of the society in which he moved (all peasants, according to Cox), or of the lavish scale on which one of his station would exist (the final scene takes place in a Gothic crypt decorated with a pressed glass goblet, two Victorian silver platter covers, and a brace of very un-period music stands) -- hardly the sort of careful prop-work one expects from a professional opera company.

Could it be that Cox was rushed? Is this why things looked rather too haphazard, often amateurish, and altogether unsuited to a house of City Opera's stature? And why does lighting designer Gilbert Hemsley allow so much obscure lighting? When an audience cannot see faces for the good part of any number of scenes, they finally cease trying to figure out what is transpiring on stage.

Fortunately we had Rudel in the pit to counteract the murky goings-on on stage, but Rudel will not be a permanent part of this production, which is expected to settle into the City Opera repertory. It hardly seems to be an ideal -- or even acceptable -- way to present one of the greatest operas ever written.

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