Peabody Opera Theatre shows off promising talent in 'Don Giovanni'

The emergence of Lyric Opera Baltimore last year was probably the biggest news in the city's cultural scene, but the simultaneous development of a collaboration between the Peabody Institute and the Modell/Lyric Performing Arts Center ranked right up there.

The deal meant that, for the first time, Peabody Opera Theatre could present some of its work in a full-sized venue, providing a valuable learning experience for voice students, not to mention the conservatory's orchestra.

The inaugural venture came out of what, for Baltimore, constitutes left field -- Stravinsky's "The Rake's Progress."

This year's choice would be considered right down the middle in most places, but Mozart's "Don Giovanni" was last staged at the Lyric in 1999, so it seemed almost novel to see it there over the weekend. (The old Baltimore Opera Company was remarkably Mozart-averse.)

Sunday afternoon's performance was, on balance, a good showing for Peabody, musically and theatrically.

Roger Brunyate, the recently retired, longtime head of the opera program, jumped back into the thick of things to direct, and his professional touch and thoughtfulness could be detected throughout.

His concept notably included a wound for Don Giovanni that, Amfortas-like, never healed. (Brunyate credited a recent Salzburg production with giving him the idea to have the antihero wounded in his opening scene duel with the Commendatore.)

The device intriguingly suggested that Don Giovanni knew his time was running out, long before a certain statue turned up in his doorway.

If a couple of questionable details also popped up in this staging -- Donna Elvira stabbing a portrait of Don Giovanni with giant hairpins was more Carol Burnett than Lorenzo DaPonte, for example, and having her join a nunnery early on seemed a wee bit odd -- Brunyate ensured that the action flowed easily and effectively.

Aiding that flow was ...

Luke Hegel-Cantarella's economical set -- a series of askew frames, suggesting Don Giovanni's own off-kilter moral compass -- nicely lit by Douglas Nelson.

Jeffrey Grayson Gates tackled the title role with plenty of suave and cocky moves. His voice did not exactly fill the theater, but the evenness and warmth of the tone came through admirably.

Although he sang the Serenade colorlessly, he charged through the Champagne Aria with elan and produced a good deal of vocal spark in his final scenes.

Jeffrey Martin's Leporello was a nimble and amusing fellow (the shtick with food during Don Giovanni's dinner got fresh laughs), and he sang quite vibrantly.

As Donna Elvira, Alexandra Razskazoff sounded the readiest for prime time. The soprano's tone had an effective brightness, security and power, while her phrasing revealed a good deal of personality.

At her best, Huanhuan Ma also impressed as Donna Anna. Though her voice tended to tighten at the top, the fire in her delivery paid dividends. This was especially so in "Non mi dir," here treated as a mini-mad scene, one of Brunyate's most inspired tweaks (I only wish that some stage business with lilies hadn't reminded me of Ethel Mertz's big number in Lucy Ricardo's immortal operetta "The Pleasant Peasant").

Halim Shon made a valiant effort as Don Ottavio. The voice could use further development and support (the tenor sounded quite tired by the time he reached "Il mio tesoro"). Still, there was promising sensitivity in the phrase-shaping.

Janna Critz needed more tonal variety as Zerlina, but she served the music effectively. As the Commendatore, Alex Rosen compensated for a lack of heft with expressive dignity. Seonghyeon Park, as Masetto, was not fully up to vocal task and his rhythm could be imprecise, but he communicated the character's temperamental nature efficiently. The chorus sounded firm.

The real star of the production was the Peabody Symphony Orchestra, which played confidently and stylishly all afternoon. A little more punch would have been welcome here and there from conductor Leonardo Vordoni, but his calm authority and considerable musicality gave the performance a solid foundation.

PHOTOS BY EDWARD S. DAVIS

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