“You’re special, baby”: 1960s Don Giovanni at Opera in the Heights

Photo by Amitava Sarkar

 

What does Mozart’s 1787 Don Giovanni look like in 1960? Sure, a lot of opera productions don’t stick to the period in which an opera was actually written. But Opera in the Heights’ Don Giovanni embraces 1960 from the set and costumes to even the English subtitles projected above the stage. Lines like “You’re special, baby” drew mixed reactions, I noticed looking around. Sometimes Mozart’s score felt mis-matched against Don Giovanni bragging “I’ll rock your world.” But as I overheard in a debate at intermission, “Yeah, but a player is always a player.”

Peter Sellars’ famous re-setting of Don Giovanni in the Spanish Harlem ghetto of New York City has always been a favorite of mine. Last night, with Donna Anna dancing lasciviously and chugging Jack Daniels followed by Masetto’s crew sporting tight jeans and leather jackets, it was like a mash-up of provocative Sellars and West Side Story.

I find Donna Elvira less deranged and more admirable, although opinions vary. Making both an OH debut and a role debut as Donna Elvira, Soprano Julia Cramer (Ruby Cast) struck just the right character balance. While Donna Elvira is a bitter, spurned lover, she also inspires some sympathy. I’ve always been impressed, rather than disappointed, that she recognizes Don Giovanni for the cad he is and still loves him to the end, vowing to spend her days in a convent after he is pulled down to hell.

The updated libretto took a few liberties with Elvira, stating Don Giovanni had left her pregnant instead of ambiguously “shamed.” But even without this added touch, Cramer’s voice would have pulled anyone over to her side. She’s a sharp singer with a warm timbre and versatile ability to change emotional tone—she conveyed the whole spectrum of Elvira’s multi-dimensional character expertly.

The singing at OH just keeps getting better. I was excited to see Michelle Johnson return as Donna Anna. I first heard Johnson singing the part of Leonora in Il Trovatore a few seasons ago. Her voice was memorable then, but has since blossomed into a force. As a soprano, Johnson proved last night she’s about to rock the opera world with a new kind of powerful presence. As her unfortunate fiancé Don Ottavio, Zach Averyt’s tenor voice was out-matched by Johnson. While his vibrato was a bit too wide, he got the cowardly sentiment of Ottavio just right. Also making an OH debut and a role debut as Don Giovanni, baritone Brian K. Major ruled as equally sexy and despicable. Major sings without reserve—full-bodied and broad—but also proved to be a captivating actor.

Bass-baritone Justin Hopkins, in the part of Leporello, stole this show. Although I’m morally opposed to shameless conquest counting, “Madamina, il catalogo è questo” is always a Don Giovanni high-point for me. Ripping off names in a rolodex and tossing them across the stage, Hopkins didn’t disappoint. His voice is unlike any other bass-baritone I’ve heard: a thick, rich timbre that is surprisingly light and flexible. Whether it was dancing over fast libretto or a sinking into a slow passage, Hopkins made it look easy.

Artistic director and conductor Enrique Carreón-Robledo is catching Houston’s attention for a reason. Generally, I don’t like to compare OH to Houston Grand Opera. I’ve written before about the intimacy that sets OH apart and their commitment to fostering up-and-coming artists. The companies are altogether different. That said, thinking of the Rigoletto I saw last week at HGO, there were moments last night when the singing was so spot-on, the passion so heightened, that OH could give HGO a run for its money.

 

Don Giovanni at Opera in the Heights runs January 31 – February 9. For ticket info, check out their website, and be on the alert for their season-closer Lucia di Lammermoor which opens March 28.

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