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Vengeance Is Sweet

[whitespace] Don Giovanni By the Don's Early Light: Don Giovanni (Brian Leerhuber) confers with Zerlina (Dana Johnson) in Opera San José's production of Mozart's classic opera buffa.

Dan Herron Photography

Opera San José survives the flu bug to find the fierceness in 'Don Giovanni'

By Michael J. Vaughn

THE MOST DEVILISH force at work in Opera San José's opening night production of Don Giovanni was not a graveyard statue dragging sinners down to hell but a nasty virus dragging singers down to earth. The hellish little bug took down bass-baritone Maris Vipulis before he could mount the stage as Leporello, and nabbed mezzo Teresa Brown's Donna Elvira before the end of the first act.

Thanks to the magic of alternate casting (specifically, baritone Carl King and soprano Hope Briggs), Opera San José assembled a musically accomplished and comically adroit production, a bit bloodless in its action scenes but blessed with a baker's dozen of funny and beautiful moments.

Mozart's dramma giocoso is simultaneously one of the most perfect of operas and one of the most troublesome. How to explain an opera buffa, imbued with slapstick and tomfoolery, in which the hero (or, more accurately, antihero) begins by killing off the father of his sexual target and ends by being dragged down to the nether world for his sins? Oh stop, Amadeus, you're killin' me.

The way down from this precipice begins and ends with the title character. In baritone Brian Leerhuber, Opera San José has a performer with the same elements of dash, swagger and humor that brought so much success to the company's last great Giovanni, Mel Ulrich (Ulrich recently made his debut--as Mozart's Figaro--with the New York City Opera).

In Giovanni's second-act serenade, "Deh vieni alla finestra," Leerhuber projects a warmth that testifies to the Don's genuine--if grotesquely scattered--devotion to the female gender; it is this passion that makes Giovanni's nonstop womanizing slightly more palatable.

Our last-minute Leporello, Carl King, did a fine job also, displaying a lack of projection in the lower ranges but delivering the duo's comic shtick--the beleaguered servant always quitting, the wily Giovanni always coercing him back--to perfection.

The various chases and duels were never as exciting as they could have been, and they were often downright clumsy, although I did enjoy the gesture of Giovanni cleaning his sword on the Commendatore's robe even as the noble father sang his last breath.

If the fierceness came out anywhere, it was in soprano Christina Major's reading of Donna Anna, the Commendatore's vengeance-minded daughter. The vengeance transformed itself into a sweet, heart-wrenching grief in Anna's Act 2 aria, "Non mi dir," in which she pleads with her fiancé, Don Ottavio, to put off thoughts of marriage until she is done with her mourning. Major's high pianissimos, dangled lovingly over the orchestra's extended fermatas, provided the evening's most epiphanic musical moment. The technical highlight was tenor Robert McPherson's accomplished handling of Ottavio's vow of vengeance, "Il mio tesoro," with its many terrifying runs.

Another well-formed character is Zerlina, who could likely come off as just another ditzy peasant girl but, in the hands of Dana Johnson, becomes a woman fully in charge of her environment, capable of balancing the flattering attentions of the nobleman Giovanni with her sincere devotion to her commoner fiancé, Masetto (baritone Brian Carter). Johnson employs her lyric soprano with great taste and charm.

The production's setting was filled with fine touches, from Donna Elvira's sumptuous pumpkin-velvet Act 1 dress (by costume designer Julie Engelbrecht) to Joe Ragey's spooky-metal set with its many handy hiding places (and The Rape of the Sabine Women as a backdrop to Giovanni's dining room).

Barbara Day Turner's orchestra was spot-on, especially in the strings, although the great doom-chords of the Commendatore's final stony entrance could have used a few more ounces of steroids (or, of course, a bigger orchestra pit).

Don Giovanni runs Feb. 4-6, 9, 11, 13 at 8pm and Feb. 7 and 14 at 3pm at the Montgomery Theater, Market at San Carlos streets, San Jose. Tickets are $32-$50. (408/437-4450)

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From the February 4-10, 1999 issue of Metro.

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