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Don Giovanni

Mozart’s Un-Repenting Rake

An evening at the opera, even a “school night” performance, promises something special. The night is even better with a pre-performance Prosecco at Jardiniere, a chance to bask amidst sweet smelling men in tuxedos and grand looking women in diamonds and stoles, and, in this case, the opportunity to enjoy what many consider to be the most perfect opera, the pinnacle of its form.

The San Francisco Opera’s presentation of “Don Giovannni” is worth all the fuss -- worth the preparation, the indulgence as well as all the sequins and extra rouge. Mozart’s masterpiece, based on the story of Don Juan, has humor, dark undertones, and a rich plot with complex characters.

“Don Giovanni” is the story of a lascivious nobleman who has a passion for women -- multitudes of women! He has a lust that can never be completely satiated. Don Giovanni (Mariusz Kwiecien), constantly searching for a new conquest, rapes Donna Anna (Elza van den Heever), kills her father, the Commendatore (Kristinn Sigmundsson), spurns a former conquest, Donna Elvira (Twila Robinson), and seduces a new bride, Zerlina (Claudia Mahnke), right under the nose of her new husband, Masetto (Luca Pisaroni). Poor Leporello (Oren Gradus), Don Giovanni’s servant, watches over these proceedings, occasionally offered up by his master as a scapegoat for his master. Leporello acts as the conscience within the story, generally disapproving until Don Giovanni offers greater compensation.

San Francisco Opera’s production of “Don Giovanni” is both experimental and traditional; the stage setting is stark and modern, and the costuming looks almost Victorian, while Leah Hausman’s direction brings to light the classic charms of the opera, concentrating on those qualities that make it so appealing -- the humor, the passion, and the music.

Key to the success of this production is Kwiecien, a magnificent, handsome Don Giovanni. Not only does he have a rich, lovely baritone, but he’s probably one of the few Don Giovanni’s you’ll see looking good without his shirt on -- not an easy feat for anyone, let alone an opera singer. Kwiecien’s performance is brash and confident, and when he sings, “Fin ch’han del vino” (Finally, with the wine), the entire audience is seduced, ready to raise a cup and join him in drink, following him in his quest for sensual delights.

Another rare occurrence, Hope Briggs, initially cast in the role of Donna Anna, was replaced after the last dress rehearsal by van den Heever. No doubt this situation has presented a challenge for van den Heever -- she went without rehearsals with the cast, and with the controversy comes a great deal of pressure and speculation (and probably some embarrassment for both Hope Briggs and the San Francisco Opera). Nevertheless, van den Heever shines; her voice is a clear, liquid soprano, and her performance is seamless. When Don Ottavio (Charles Castronovo) pressures Donna Anna to marry him, and van den Heer sings, “Non mi dir, bell’idol mio” (Tell me not), one can feel her emotion build, drawing the audience in to Donna Anna’s grief and feelings of love for both her father and her fiancé.

After leaving the theater, dazed and entranced, we quickly slipped into a cab, still humming, Zerlina’s “Vedrai, Carino”(Come dear one). As we settled in for the ride, our driver asked, “What opera did you see?” We said, “Don Giovanni.” He sighed, “Ah -- my favorite opera! You know, it’s the greatest opera of all time! I’ve seen it five times.”

And we did know -- even with a three plus hour performance that pushed us beyond our bedtime -- that we’d witnessed all the ingredients that comprise a great performance. San Francisco Opera’s production of “Don Giovanni” offered its audience bawdy laughs, sexual tension, great passion, grand performances, and music that communicated plot and emotions via human voice and Donald Runnicles’ superbly conducted orchestra. Listening and watching the San Francisco Opera’s “Don Giovanni” makes one marvel at the beauty that humans can create through music and performance, and only anticipate that fifth or sixth viewing.

Don Giovanni
runs through June 30th
at the San Francisco Opera
Box office 415.864.3300
Tickets: $25-245; standing room: $10