With Mozart’s Don Giovanni as the opening salvo in its 2010 Festival, Ft Worth Opera’s creative guns were loaded and they came out blazing. Saturday night’s opening performance at Bass Hall was as vital and pumped full of youthful vigor and masterful artistry as any a Mozart lover could hope to see. Forgive the company some uneven staging and quirky editing of the classic work; the fine cast assembled addressed the complex, non-stop challenges of the music and roles and gave a performance that thrilled the rapt audience and infused the opera with soaring vitality, capitalizing on its humor as well as its somber themes.
Call him Don Alluring, Don Irresistible, Don the Snake Charmer. By the time 2006 McCammon Competition winner Michael Todd Simpson in the title role seduced Donna Elvira’s maid, he’d won over every romantic in the house. A stylish “hottie” in cape, flowing locks, thigh high boots and six-pack revealing poet’s shirts, his rich, powerhouse baritone evokes the cold, calculated lasciviousness of the role while imbuing it with a boyish charm at the same time. Recent successes in Dallas with Cosi fan tutte as well as 2010 Metropolitan Opera debut in The Tales of Hoffmann bode well for this attractive young man with decided acting chops as well as vocal talent and enviable technique on full display in this demanding role. Almost sad to see him descend into Hell.
As Don Giovanni’s sidekick and foil Leporello, and the strongest actor in the cast, Tom Corbeil gave the audience ample chance to sympathize with his unearned plight and laugh at his antics.
The orchestra occasionally overpowered his warm bass baritone in the lower register. But his accurate, expressive voicing and dynamics more than made up for the slight imbalance. Slightly taller than but similarly built to Simpson, equally dashing in macho swashbuckling attire, Corbeil’s acting made the role switch in Act II more believable and funnier than I’ve ever seen it. This 2009 Liederkrantz Foundation winner thrilled Fort Worth Opera’s opening night’s audience with his nuanced, sterling performance. He’s the perfect fall guy for libertine Don Giovanni’s machinations.
Hard to describe Susanna Phillips’ performance as Donna Anna, without sounding star-struck and ingratiating. To start with, she’s won almost every major vocal award and competition possible, with clear justification. Earlier this year, she was awarded the fifth annual Beverly Sills Artist Award for young singers at the Metropolitan Opera. She possesses a heavenly unique gift as a singer, from delicately colored notes, almost whispered, in reflection, to expression of full-throated coloratura anguish.
I found myself closing my eyes to fully relish her vocal talents and technical mastery; she made Mozart’s challenging arias soar like child’s play. Judging from the cheers and applause resounding throughout the Bass Hall every time Phillips finished singing, the whole audience recognized and appreciated her gifts as well.
Lyric tenor David Portillo as Donna Anna’s faithful suitor Don Ottavio, could have been overshadowed by Phillips’ breathtakingly exquisite performance if he were not so accomplished a singer and actor, himself. Portillo made Don Ottavio very human and loving and honored Donna Anna’s depth of grief with depth of devotion. His arias, executed with heartfelt simplicity and technical adeptness, revealed the soul of a good man, in perfect contrast to Don Giovanni’s lustful duplicity. In voice and action, he measured up to Phillips’ Donna Anna in a satisfying performance.
As Donna Elvira, comic object of Don G’s derision and his relentlessly co-dependent wronged lover, Holli Harrison brought a tangibly plaintive quality to the role. Uneven at times in opening night’s performance, her soprano voice exhibited a huge range, resilience and power that promise quite a future. It’s easy to comprehend her grand prize win at the 2006 Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions (like Phillips’ from 2005). Her costume, a distracting, tacky salmon and pink gown and pretentious plumed hat, seemed to belong to a different opera and forced a static quality on her otherwise engaging performance.
Ft. Worth Opera Studio Artists Ashley Kerr and Matthew Young as comic peasant lovers Zerlina and Masetto sang competently but lacked inspiration and depth in their acting. Matthew Trevino as Commendatore offered an exceedingly low-key performance of this catalytic role, perhaps a directorial choice? His understated presence and low vocal projection made the final scene with Don Giovanni’s descent anti-climactic, given the splendid build-up from the rest of the production. The austere set, mostly archways and pillars with silhouetted backdrops, rented from Lyric Opera of Kansas City, added little to the performance but provided an adequate backdrop for the fine singing and acting. Why was Don Giovanni’s final scene cut from this production? Puzzling and abrupt, the ending seemed to leave the audience stunned for a moment. All soon recovered once curtain call began. Go for the beautifully executed score as conducted by Joe Illick and the ethereal harpsichord accompaniment by Emily Jarrell Urbanek. Most of all go to enjoy outstanding performances by some of modern opera’s strongest young talents.
Fort Worth Opera opens its 2010 Festival with a rousing, lyrical Don Giovanni by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, directed by Richard Kagey, at Bass Performance Hall, 330 E. Fourth Street, Fort Worth, TX 76102.
Performances remaining: May 30, 2pm; June 4, 8pm
Run time: Three hours, 15 minutes, with one intermission
For tickets: 817-731-0726, or www.fwopera.org
Photos by Ellen Appel
About the Metropolitan Opera’s Beverly Sills Award:
About the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions: http://www.metoperafamily.org/metopera/auditions/national/
About the Liederkrantz Foundation winners: http://www.liederkranznycity.org/vcompetition.asp
About the McCammon Competition: http://www.fwopera.org/Discover-Opera/McCammon/