Undercroft Opera Sinks Its Teeth into Mozart’s “Don Giovanni.”

don giovanniLast night Undercroft Opera presented the first of this weekend’s productions of its unique twist on Mozart’s classic opera, Don Giovanni. Fortunately, Mozart’s music remains – but Lorenzo Da Ponte’s libretto, which tells the tale of the ruthlessly womanizing Don Juan, gives way to a new one in English, which highlights the similarities between the characters of his ancient tale and those of Bram Stoker’s “Dracula.”

Mozart’s masterpiece has been reworked many times in its history of nearly 230 years; the composer himself added arias, conductors through the centuries have chopped the two acts into four, omitted arias and the final ensemble, moved arias to different scenes, and more. But to create an entirely new libretto and make it fit the music is indeed an ambitious effort on the parts of Bonnie Bogovich and Liz Rishel, along with Gwen Schmidt, Michael Greenstein and Mary Beth Sederburg, who collaborated to conceive the possibilities and make them realities. In this inspired combination of Da Ponte’s and Stoker’s characters and situations, Producer Sederburg and the libretto team draw parallels between Don Giovanni and Dracula; Leporello, Renfield; Donna Anna, Mina Harker; The Commendatore, Van Helsing; Don Ottavio, Jonathan Harker; Donna Elvira, Dracula’s bride; Zerlina, Lucy, and Masetto, Arthur. The amount of work involved in such an undertaking is nearly inconceivable, but all involved are to be congratulated on their efforts, for they have more than paid off, and the spin is very effective and quite entertaining. It’s three hours of fiendish fun.

The characters retain their original names, although bloodsucking is added to Don Giovanni’s long list of wrongdoings, and the action is set in 1898 London. The staging is efficiently handled through clever video and lighting effects, eliminating the cumbersome and distracting shifting of drops and accessories the many scenes would ordinarily require. The costumes are in keeping with the late Victorian era of Stoker’s novel.

In last night’s cast, consisting mainly of young, local singers, the female contingent easily carried off the honors, although there were stretches where their male associates did some fine singing as well. As is usually the case, Zerlina manages to rise to the top when the role is in the proper hands, and Emily Kate Naydeck did some of the best singing and charming acting of the evening. But this opera requires three sopranos whose roles are of more or less equal importance, and Gail Novak Mosites as Donna Anna and Rebecca Rumfelt as Donna Elvira gave their parts the best they could give as well. Ms. Novak Mosite, in particular, seems to have made great strides as a singing actress since the writer last heard her in Opera Theater of Pittsburgh’s The Merry Widow a couple of summers ago. Both she and Ms. Rumfelt handled their long stretches of difficult music quite well, and all three sopranos provided ample volume and the best examples of Mozart’s pure legato style. When sung properly, Mozart’s music sounds almost effortlessly beautiful, but in actuality the technical difficulties are extremely daunting. Therefore, an occasional broken phrase or slurred note is easily overlooked.

Don Ottavio, such a lackluster role in Da Ponte’s libretto, is brought more boldly to the fore by tenor Aaron Kaswen. A bit timid at the start, he warmed to the part as the opera progressed, and sang the music allotted to the character cautiously, but fairly well, if occasionally lacking in volume. It’s to his credit that he sang one aria (“Il mio tesoro” in the original Italian opera) which is so difficult that it was omitted when Pittsburgh Opera produced the work several years ago.

Wesley Caulkins, as Masetto, and Robert Herold, as the “Commendatore” (Donna Anna’s father, who is killed by Don Giovanni early in the opera, but returns as a ghostly, avenging statue later), also added rather substantially to the ensemble, as did the chorus in the little it has to do in the work.

In the title role, Ngofeen Mputubwele sang with a lightweight baritone of some warmth on the occasions he was audible. For the most part, he was overwhelmed by the orchestra and ensembles, and didn’t present an especially sinister Don Giovanni, while his acting of the part in the main consisted of much swishing of his cape. Zach Wood, as Leporello, the Don’s deep-voiced manservant and confidante, also lacked volume on occasions, but acted the part with greater flair.

Thomas Douglas conducted the fairly large orchestra. The playing of the instrumentalists was somewhat uneven throughout, with sections being too prominent in spots, and vice versa in others, quite a few lapses in pitch, occasionally shrill strings, and the almost inevitable stray horn or woodwind sounding a jarring note with some frequency. It seemed as if they had been under or over-rehearsed, but in fairness the score is difficult, and with the exception of the 15 minute intermission between the two acts, the players were hard at it from 8 until 11 o’clock.

Despite a few flaws almost inherent to an opening night, the evening was enjoyable. The production, the last of Undercroft’s offerings this season, is worthy of large audiences, and patronage as a novel Memorial Day weekend treat is highly recommended.

The production will be repeated tonight, Friday, May 27, at 8 pm; Saturday May 28, at 1 and 8 pm, and Sunday May 29, at 2 pm, with alternating casts. For full production, cast, ticket information and more, please visit Undercroft Opera.

Special thanks to Undercroft Opera for the complimentary press ticket.

The “Artistic Team” for Don Giovanni

Conductor, Thomas Douglas; Stage Director, Sarah Young; Production and Stage Manager, Michelle Engleman; Rehearsal Accompanist/Vocal Coach/Harpsichord, Anna Kovalevska; Vocal Coach, Hyery Hwang; Assistant Conductor, Brian Gilling; Assistant Director, Robert Hockenberry; Publicity Team,  Yvonne Hudson, Lynette Asson of New Place Collaborations; Covers Cast Stage Director, Judy Kirby; Covers Cast Accompanist, Aida Olarte; Chorus Master, George Milosh; Video Designer: Antonio Colaruotolo; Costume Designer, Cindy Albert; Lighting Designer, Garth Schafer; Scenic Designer, Neil Sederburg; Surtitles Engineer, Sean G. Donaldson; Producer, Mary Beth Sederburg.