It’s always been a little hard to believe the legend of Don Juan. I mean, really — a guy who seduced 1,003 women in Spain and hundreds more in the rest of Europe? Turned into an opera, it can seem like just another chauvinistic excuse to have pretty, stupid women take off their clothes on stage.
But in the hands of Seattle Opera, with stage director Chris Alexander and a cast who can both sing and act well, Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” gets a different take — one that delves into the seamy, violent side of this charismatic psychopath.
To begin with, this 2007 production (with set design by Robert Dahlstrom) takes the action out of any real world and puts it firmly into the unnervingly stark setting of a psychological fairy tale. Towering gray doors and windows either cast the characters as tiny puppets or open onto bizarrely colorful worlds where they can act out their fantasies: a palm-treed pool party, a red-lit boudoir, an ice-cold cemetery. It’s not everyone’s set-design cup of tea, but it works. Costumes (by Marie-Therese Cramer) jump between decades: the Don bringing puffy purple baroque shirts and footmen wherever he goes, and the women he seduces occupying various eras (Donna Anna in bustles, Donna Elvira in 1940s fishtails, Zerlina in skater skirts). Again, it’s a clever effect, turning present actions into the eternal theme of love versus lust.
Vocally, everyone in the cast adds to the jigsaw. The main cast’s three soprano leads each have a voice suiting her character: the lofty, angelic-toned Erin Wall playing the righteous Donna Anna, who seeks revenge after Don Giovanni rapes her and kills her father; the lushly languid Cecelia Hall, with some stunningly beautiful high notes, as the ditzy flirt Zerlina; and a magnificent Elizabeth Caballero stealing the show as a Donna Elvira, who can’t decide whether she wants Don Giovanni back or wants him punished. Singing with sassy-edged power (her “Ah! Fuggi Il Traditor” impressively clear) she gives the scorned Elvira a hilariously klutzy, Sandra Bullock kind of treatment.
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Most of the men were less impressive: Lawrence Brownlee sang Anna’s suitor Don Ottavio like a singing exercise; Erik Anstine was more oafish than funny as Giovanni’s sidekick Leporello; and Jordan Bisch needed a bit more reverberance as the vengeful ghostly Commendatore statue. But the one exception was Nicholas Cavallier in the title role. With a stylish, rounded bass-baritone (and completely owning his tight black leather pants), Cavallier prowled the stage like a tiger, utterly convincing in charisma while underpinning everything with a psychopathic violence that explains the Don Juan legend, all the way up to his final fiery finish.
Conducted by Gary Thor Wedow, the orchestra gave this beautiful score an elegant period treatment, with floaty winds and feathery strings nevertheless able to give crisp attacks when necessary.
Add in a few special effects tricks (notwithstanding a computer glitch that had someone’s laptop screen displayed all over the stage for a few minutes), and plenty of funny sight gags, and you have a “Don Giovanni” that’s not only great eye- and ear-candy, but delves into some deep human psychology in a very thought-provoking way.