Review: Music, action drive modernized 'Don Giovanni'

Among composers, only Mozart had the courage and genius to write an opera, "Don Giovanni," defining a libertine relishing his conquests (until ultimately suffering a fearsome fate). Displaying his own courageous creativity, J. Ernest Green, music director of Live Arts Maryland, brought his new stage version of the opera to Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts for two performances.

Prefacing the title with "A day in the life, loves and death of," Green lent a fresh view to what is often described as Mozart's greatest opera.

In his lecture before the concert, Green said, "I wanted to create something that focused on the story and at the same time let Mozart's music drive the action."

Green said that, mindful of today's television audiences who are accustomed to fast-paced storytelling, he set the action at a livelier pace.

Noting that "modern audiences don't talk or think the same way people did in the 18th century," Green made this masterpiece more relevant to his Annapolis audience by replacing the Italian language with contemporary English and replacing recitatives with spoken dialogue.

The Maryland Hall stage was filled from the start with musicians and choristers who became the center of an unfolding drama, with Green at the podium. This provided a rewarding experience for the audience, where no patter or stage action interrupted the making of beautiful music.

Green's version began with a veil of smoke accompanying a prologue that hinted at the fate awaiting Don Giovanni, a perceptive beginning that anticipated Mozart's magnificent overture foretelling the high drama to follow. Before the overture ended, leading cast members had assembled on stage.

Baritone Shouvik Mondle sang the title role, displaying vocal power while projecting nobility. He seemed vocally most seductive in the justly famed "Deh vieni" serenade. A convincing actor, Mondle revealed strong rapport with Jimi James' Leporello as he vigorously chastised his servant. He also communicated Giovanni's robust libido to an ensemble of wary and willing sopranos.

As the abandoned former conquest Donna Elvira, soprano Fatinah Tilfah displayed jealous fury mixed with reluctant longing for Giovanni, occasionally sacrificing, Callas-like, some vocal beauty for expressive art.

Baltimore-based Peabody Conservatory graduate soprano Natalie Conte sang the part of Donna Anna, whose rape by Giovanni leads to a duel in which her father is killed. Conte projected Donna Anna's love for her father, desire for vengeance against Giovanni and impatient detachment from her fiance, Don Ottavio.

As peasant bride-to-be Zerlina, mezzo Katherine Pracht delivered a stunning performance. Actor/singer John Halmi was totally credible vocally and dramatically in the role of country groom Masetto.

Tenor Andrew Owens brought surprising life and sympathy to the rather thankless role of Don Ottavio. And baritone Scott Root was a compelling Commendatore, bringing distinctive drama to the production.

Stentorian baritone James as servant Leporello brought his superb vocal control, energy and engaging comic skills to define anew this fabulous role.

From the first note, and continuously shining through every aspect of this production was Green's respect for Mozart's score. Green deserves enormous praise for undertaking this formidable task and succeeding on most levels.

The task of transferring Giovanni to the current day inevitably elicits criticisms. Mine concern the incongruities inherent in trying to make 18th-century Giovanni relevant, with his nobleman's aristocratic abuse of power and his disdain for women. Moving his story to present-day might work better if Giovanni became a more Guido Contini-like womanizer, as found in Broadway's "Nine." But what kind of fate might this antihero meet that would compare with Giovanni's dramatic end?

Up next

Next on the schedule for Green and Live Arts Maryland are two performances of the annual Celebration of Christmas concert, at 7:30 p.m. Dec. 9 and 8 p.m. Dec. 10 at Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts, 801 Chase St., Annapolis. Performances of Handel's "Messiah" will be at 8 p.m. Dec. 17 and 18 and at 3 p.m. Dec. 19 at St. Anne's Episcopal Church. Tickets: 410-280-5640 or

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