Now in its 40th year of operation, the Regina Opera Company in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn opened this benchmark season in grand style with a decidedly wonderful choice of operas – W.A. Mozart’s Don Giovanni. First performed in 1787 in Prague as Il Dissoluto Punito ossia il Don Giovanni Dramma giocoso in due atti, it was received with tremendous success and, thankfully, the title was shortened.
As the infamous heart-breaker, Don Giovanni, Bryce Smith was irresistible and delightfully devilish with an elegantly resonant bass voice that evoked images of the great Cesare Siepi and Ezio Pinza. He chose to play the Don with a carefree jollity and sexual energy that the privileged nobility would have enjoyed. This handsome young singer would make any young lass swoon and it was obvious why Zerlina would fall for him so easily in their duet “La ci darem la mano.” His serenade, “Deh vieni alla finestra,” was remarkable and hinted at the major career for which he is destined. He attacked the “Fin che dal vino” with charm and bravura.
His expressive face later showed the frailty hidden deep within the Don’s lecherous heart when confronted with his demons. During the famous death scene, Smith took the audience on a ride of purely passionate pleasure as he was literally overcome by the Commendatore’s powers and defiantly dragged to hell. The uproarious applause during his bow was testament to the fact that Smith is one of the rare acting-singers whom audiences adore and enjoy seeing on stage.
John Schenkel as his short and lovable sidekick was a joy to watch. The role seemed to sit a little low for his baritone, but he handled the demands perfectly with a comic timing that one would expect from larger companies. He simply was Leporello – funny but jaded, loyal and despising, pathetic yet lovable. Schenkel acted the part to perfection and the audience ate it up. His “Madamina! Il catalogo e questo” was light and humorous. The contempt he harbored towards Don Giovanni was evident from his first step into the spotlight and just as comical to the last shriveling cower as his master disappeared into hell.
Donna Elvira, sung here by Camille Gifford, was finally an interesting character. Gifford was elegant and delightfully comical as the vengeful jilted noblewoman. Her first aria, “Ah, chi mi dici mai,” was like no other, hilariously stalking the wretched Don cross-country and taking out her anger on her poor manservant. Her “Mi tradi” was deftly sung in a brilliant soprano voice that took no prisoners; no wonder she made the Don think twice about leaving her before his untimely death.
Maryann Mootos was utterly stunning as Donna Anna. When she sang, all eyes were on her, and all ears reveled in the glorious soprano voice that streamed so magically from her lips. Her rendition of “Crudele? Ah no, mio bene!” (shortly followed by “Fors’è un giorno”) was definitive. The audience responded in kind, literally stopping the show to give their approval. Make a note of it, this exquisitely beautiful artist will be seen on stages worldwide very shortly.
Don Ottavio, often portrayed rather effeminately, was charismatically handled by Ubaldo Feliciano-Hernandez with a defiance against Giovanni that made you wonder where this character had been hiding throughout the centuries. His “Dalla sua pace” was caressed with loving sweetness and he attacked the “Il mio tesoro” with fire and conviction. His vengeful passion was evident and he soared through the historically troubling passages that have bested so many wimpy tenors.
Supporting roles, typically handled by lesser talents, provided several enjoyable surprises. Mezzo Julia Spanja was wonderfully endearing as the virginal Zerlina and a perfect choice to stand up to the contemptuous Don. She was innocently beautiful during “Batti, batti o bel Masetto,” but instantly turned into a spitfire when accused of being unfaithful. She stood her ground against the men in her life, yet caressed her poor battered husband back to health in “Vedrai carino.” One could not help falling in love with her fine instrument and irresistible charm.
Masetto was handled admirably by baritone Albert Donze. His portrayal was funny and engaging, playing well off of his fellow actors. Il Commendatore was sung brilliantly by Larry Small with a commanding bass voice that sailed over the loud orchestra and filled the hall with an extraordinary resonance. Small’s portrayal would strike fear into the blackest of hearts, namely the Don’s.
Regina Opera made a valiant attempt at a staging that would stand the test of time. However, the production left something to be desired. As the orchestra struck the first note of the evening, anyone sitting in the audience knew they were in for an event they would likely never forget – unfortunately. The orchestra played as though the music in front of them was Beethoven or Mussorgsky, which would have been fine, if that was who had written this opera. And yet, there were so many blatantly wrong notes one wondered if they even had music on their stands to begin with, or if they had forgotten to bring their glasses that night.
Conductor Scott Jackson Wiley seemed overwhelmed, at times pulling triple-duty during this performance – playing the recitativo on an electronic keyboard, accompanying the famous serenade on a guitar, and conducting the 40+ other musicians and singers. He should have picked only one of these tasks and stuck to it. His awkward conducting was rigid and shaky at best and quite unbearable to watch – it made you wonder how the singers were able to follow him, if they ever looked at him. His recitativo accompaniato was horribly boring and dragged along like a funeral dirge, never once dancing or frolicking playfully with the singers as Mozart intended. However, his guitar playing was admirable and definitely the highlight of his evening – except for the fact that the orchestration calls for a mandolin.
The direction, by Linda Lehr, was quite refreshing for the seasoned opera-goer. Normally the opera is staged rather seriously and self-righteously, but this talented director brought out the humor that Mozart loves to hide within the most intricate details of his musical genius. Choosing to bring out the slapstick in the fact that Donna Elvira has been following Don Giovanni all the way across Spain was a stroke of genius on Lehr’s part. She then found humor in playing a rather tall debonair Giovanni against a short, stocky Leporello when they pretend to be each other. It was like Don Quixote and Sancho Panza trying to switch places, it just didn’t work that well and the hilarity ensued. Thankfully it made the audience forget about the orchestra and conductor – at least for a few seconds.
Despite being in the outermost reaches of Brooklyn, Regina Opera does not seem to be hurting for talent to perform in their productions. It is admirable to see a community-based opera company continuing solidly for 40 years. One can only hope that they continue their efforts to provide entertainment for another 40 or more. The next production to be mounted here will be Donizetti’s Don Pasquale in March. Hopefully, the recession will turn around soon and, with better budgeting in the future, more attention can be paid to developing a better orchestra and unloading some of the many duties that the clumsy conductor had to handle in this production. More information is available on the company’s website at www.ReginaOpera.org.