Opera review: Austin Opera’s “Don Giovanni”

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Austin Opera's "Don Giovanni." Photo by Lynn Lane.

(This review is written by American-Statesman freelance arts critic Luke Quinton.)


Don Giovanni is one of fine art’s notorious womanizers, but goes about it in the most charming way. He’s a philanderer in an era when behaviour like this had real consequences — for the women at least. But like a greasy eel Don Giovanni always manages to slip out unscathed.

Austin Opera's "Don Giovanni." Photo by Lynn Lane.

Austin Opera’s “Don Giovanni.” Photo by Lynn Lane.

Except, as we meet him in Mozart’s famous opera — Don Giovanni’s trail of disgraced gentlewomen and barmaids is about to catch up to him.

This is Mozart, so the musical color palate is a beautiful one, the spirited overture, with conductor and artistic director Richard Buckley at the helm, was full of wit and flare. I would have been quite happy for that to go on for longer.

The Austin Opera’s “Don Giovanni” opens with Leporello (bass baritone Matthew Burns), on the ground outside a nobleman’s mansion, bemoaning his job: to keep watch while his boss, Don Giovanni, sneaks into the home to try and make it with the nobleman’s daughter. Leporello gets a surprise (or maybe a foregone conclusion) when masked Giovanni runs from the house and then launches into a sword fight with the Commendatore (Gustav Andreassen) who’s impaled by Giovanni’s sword.

This launches a troubling chain of events for Don Giovanni, all the more so when his ex-conquests begin meeting each other.

The comic duo of Burns as Leporello and baritone Morgan Smith as Don Giovanni, hits all the right notes, even when some of the libretto’s sexual innuendo crosses into truly crass, gradeschool territory. Smith’s Giovanni embodies that stiff shoulder posture of the proud, overconfident gentleman, while Burns, as Leporello, is the quintessential wingman and servant, quickly jumping from jokester to slumped shoulder supplicant in an instant, with just the right winks, smirks and together, vocal harmony. Their take on this relationship is the opera’s highpoint.

Austin Opera's "Don Giovanni." Photo by Lynn Lane.

Austin Opera’s “Don Giovanni.” Photo by Lynn Lane.

The set is a little ungainly but rescued by an impressive variety of painterly lighting effects. The backdrops are versatile enough, with a smartly narrow street scene that many will recognize from Spain or Italy, but a back wall of huge columned structures stretch the imagination when the opera calls on it doubling as a town hall and then a dining room. Some floating walls have an unclear purpose, at least from the vantage point of house right.

This “Don Giovanni,” stage directed by Rebecca Herman, is beautifully done and perfectly serviceable, although it feels slow in a couple of spots for reasons that are hard to pinpoint. In part it’s a lack of tension from scenes — like Giovanni’s being fingered as the masked assassin — that should have had it in spades.

This production has a fantastic collection of voices.

The three masked detectives, Donna Anna (soprano Danielle Pastin), Donna Elvira (soprano Karin Wolverton) and Don Ottavia (tenor Jason Slayden) have gorgeously sympatico voices in their trio, asking for protection as they seek to catch Don Giovanni. And the man himself, Don Giovanni (Smith), has a wonderful baritone that blends nicely with Burns’ Leporello.

All things considered, it’s a strong, season-ending effort from the Austin Opera that, if it could find an urgent voice amidst all its comedy, would be outstanding.

Mozart’s “Don Giovanni.” 7:30 p.m. Thursday, 3 p.m. Sunday. Long Center,  $15-$200 austinopera.org

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