Bad guys in the movies and on TV might spill more blood and use fouler language, but they've still got nothing on Don Giovanni, the original amoral machine who propels one of the greatest operas in the repertoire. Mozart's immortalization of the irresistible antihero, as contemptuous of heaven's judgment as of hell's, has been given a stylish update by Opera Vivente.
This entertaining Don Giovanni is set in what appears to be 1940s or '50s America, a transition that works neatly enough. There's a linguistic matter, though, that gets in the way.
Opera Vivente performs everything in English but, this time, director John Bowen has pushed that practice more than necessary. The title character is billed as Lord Giovanni, which might be a fair way to render "Don," but the Americanization of the context, complete with a reference to dollars, renders that honorific silly. We still don't have lords over here. Besides, why not go all the way and call him Lord John?
In the end, the changes to nomenclature - the program book also identifies "Lady Anna, Lord Ottavio, Lady Elvira" - seem, well, pretentious. It's possible to move an opera's original time and place without drawing so much attention to the shift. (Excuse me if I revert here to the original names we all know.)
On the plus side is how Bowen smoothly incorporates contemporary elements into the action. When, in the first scene, Donna Anna's father challenges Don Giovanni with a sword, just as in any traditional production, an unruffled Giovanni, a la Indiana Jones, calmly pulls a gun and shoots the guy.
Melanie Clark's costumes conjure the period nicely. Portable radios also pop up cleverly as props during the opera. (That invariably leads to a common sight that should be prohibited on all opera stages - characters doing modern dance steps to 18th-century rhythms. It invariably looks labored.)
During the opening-night performance last weekend, the men in the cast left the stronger impression. Christopher Austin, who has the height and swagger for the title role, tended to push his voice hard for moments of drama and did not always control his tone when he tried for softer singing. That said, he communicated a good deal of the music's spark.
John Dooley's Leporello was a vivid presence theatrically and vocally, inhabiting the role as surely as he animated the score.
Veteran tenor Gran Wilson may not have the warmest voice, but he knows how to use it tellingly. He elevated the production's musical standards considerably with his elegant phrasing of Don Ottavio's two arias, embellishing the melodic lines in the second verse of each, a practice few singers attempt in Mozart operas. And, unless my ears deceived me, Wilson even sang the long coloratura line in the middle of Il mio tesoro (or whatever it was called here in translation) in one breath, something even fewer singers try.
David Neal produced sufficient tonal weight for the role of the Commendatore. Jason Epps sang vibrantly as Masetto. Erica Cochran's light, fluttery soprano could have used smoother edges, but her Zerlina was a charmer. Joy Greene (Donna Anna) and Heather Michele Meyer (Donna Elvira) made earnest efforts at expression, but their voices had a steely, often strained quality.
Although conductor Jed Gaylin didn't always keep everything together, he offered a good deal of expressive fire. The small orchestra got the job done.
Thom Bumblauskas has designed an attractive two-story set (atmospherically lit by A.J. Guban) that enables the action to flow easily toward its inevitable doom for the strangely appealing man without a shred of conscience.
IF YOU GO
Don Giovanni will be performed at 7:30 p.m. today and Saturday at Emmanuel Episcopal Church, 811 Cathedral St. Tickets are $33 to $55. Call 410-547-7997 or go to operavivente.org.