There's much to talk about when an opera company chooses to stage Mozart's "Don Giovanni." It has a problematic plot about a man obsessed with his sexual "conquests," and that's but the tip of the icky iceberg. There's an aria in which a woman begs to be abused, and what's more, the whole thing is largely framed as a comedy.
But the director of Minnesota Opera's new production of "Don Giovanni" has some very refreshing ideas about how to present this material in the 21st century. She has an all-woman creative team helping her lend the work a plethora of fresh staging ideas.
Yet I departed Saturday night's opening performance at St. Paul's Ordway Music Theater mainly admiring a man.
I wouldn't be the first to argue that there's no greater three-hour distillation of the composer's genius than "Don Giovanni." Not only is it packed with marvelous melodies — many familiar even to those with limited operatic experience — but it's a feast of complexly concocted trios, quartets, quintets and sextets that feel like a confluence of intellect and emotion. And the orchestrations are awe-inspiring.
Does Minnesota Opera's production do this genius justice? Oh, yes. Each of the eight leads does spectacular things with Mozart's music, and the Minnesota Opera Orchestra — fresh from agreeing to a new contract with the company — executed the score with precision and excitement. That was especially impressive considering that Mario Antonio Marra stepped into conducting duties late in the game in place of Karen Kamensek.
Director Keturah Stickann's pro-female concept is boldly imaginative, as the opera's three lead sopranos prove far more than just victims of a womanizing protagonist. The staging opens with a chilling attempted sexual assault, and Symone Harcum gives a pure and powerful voice to the anguished arias of Donna Anna, whose father is killed trying to defend her honor. Soon, Sara Gartland brings a vividly conflicted characterization to Don Giovanni's jilted wife, Donna Elvira.
But none steals scenes as capably as Leah Brzyski's Zerlina, a coquettish country girl who, in this production, has a soft spot for bondage and domination. With the help of a versatile voice that captures a character full of extremes, it's a portrayal to remember, complemented exceptionally well by Charles H. Eaton's Masetto.
Despite the female focus, the audience's attention is unlikely to stray too far from Seth Carico's Don Giovanni. His is a magnetic performance, balancing charm with unspeakable ugliness as we watch this lothario gradually crumble over the course of the second act. He's aided by his right-hand man, Leporello, here supplying some much needed comic relief courtesy of Carico's fellow richly voiced baritone, Edina native Thomas Glass.
Also making strong impressions are Efrain Corralejo's unfailingly earnest Don Ottavio and Allen Michael Jones as the menacing harbinger of Don Giovanni's demise, the Commendatore.
Liliana Duque Pineiro's set proves ideal for the story, dominated by a spinning centerpiece with stairs, doors and hidden rooms, while the 1930s-era costumes of Sarah Bahr work well for a staging that never allows too much distance to grow between audience and characters. Indeed, it feels very much a tale for our times.
Minnesota Opera's 'Don Giovanni'
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursdays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays; through May 21.
Where: Ordway Music Theater, 345 Washington St., St. Paul.
Tickets: $35-$459; 612-333-6669 or mnopera.org.
Rob Hubbard is a Twin Cities classical music writer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.