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Published: Wednesday, 4/30/2003

MOT's `Don Giovanni' unsettling production

BY STEVEN CORNELIUS
BLADE MUSIC CRITIC

The violent culture of the Spanish Inquisition is the backdrop for stage director John Pascoe's brooding production of Mozart's Don Giovanni, which opened last weekend in Detroit's Michigan Opera Theatre. A giant illuminated crucifix looms over the stage as, in the penultimate scene, the shirtless anti-hero is dragged into hell.

It's a troubling vision and one that forces reflections on the violent nature of our own times.

Indeed, from beginning to end, this is a particularly unsettling production. Almost invariably, the characters are clothed in shades of black. The exception is Giovanni, who commits his most hideous crimes of passion while cloaked in a hero's white. Stage lighting further emphasizes the shadows.

Even the comic scenes, as when Giovanni's servant, Lep-orello, details the extensive catalog of his master's romantic conquests (1,003 in Spain alone, he sings), have more bite than smile.

Briefly, the opera tells the story of Giovanni, a Spanish nobleman who lives for sexual conquest. While he has succeeded plentifully in the past, his luck seems to have changed as the opera opens.

The curtain rises to Giovanni grappling with Donna Anna. Having just failed to woo her, he now attempts to conquer by force. Anna is saved by the appearance of her father, the Commendatore, whom Giovanni kills.

Unfazed and unsatisfied, Giovanni slips away to find other marks. He attempts to seduce the peasant girl Zerlina, who is at her own wedding. Giovanni is pursued by the pathetic Donna Elvira, a former lover who cannot decide if she hates or loves him.

One aborted sexcapade leads to another until the statue of the murdered Commendatore comes to life and tells Giovanni to either repent or face eternity in hell. Giovanni chooses hell.

Because of back-to-back daily performances, principal characters have been double cast.

On Sunday, Giovanni was sung by the dashing and mellifluous-voiced Brazilian baritone Paulo Szot, who has the looks, musculature, and raw sensuality to pull off the character.

Szot was well matched in both voice and appearance with the more lightly-framed Jamie Offenbach who gave a relatively gentle and understated reading of the comic role of Leporello.

Soprano Karla Hughes, who recently sang the role of Flora in Toledo Opera's production of The Turn of the Screw, was delightful as the peasant girl Zerlina. Nimble of voice and feet, the spicy Hughes offered some of the afternoon's few light moments.

The rich-voiced sopranos Alexandrina Pendatchanska and Amy Burton sang the roles of Donna Anna and Donna Elvira respectively.

Steven Mercurio led the orchestra with tempos that were both confident and sprightly.

Michigan Opera Theatre's production of “Don Giovanni” continues at 8 p.m. today, Friday, and Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday in the Detroit Opera House, 1526 Broadway. Tickets range from $18 to $105. Information: 313-237-7464.



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