‘Don Giovanni’ — Prepare to be seduced


Opera has a special place in its heart for the bad guy.

Take Don Giovanni, a handsome rake with charm to waste and a heart of stone, a wolf in fine lambskin, romance’s worst-case scenario — Mozart did and wrote one of the world’s most famous operas about him.

The Toledo Opera will bring Don Giovanni to life at 8 p.m. Friday and 2 p.m. next Sunday in the Valentine Theatre.

Stefan Sanderling, who will conduct the production, said, “There is no doubt about it, Don Giovanni is Mozart’s most artful opera, not just musically but also dramaturgically.

“For the first time, he names an opera entirely after his protagonist. He uses this man as a vehicle. It’s amazing.”

Mozart clearly embedded morality in the opera. Its full title is The Rake Punished, or Don Giovanni. His model antagonist is based on Spain’s Don Juan archetype.

Sanderling, principal conductor and artistic adviser for the Toledo Symphony, cut his musical teeth on Mozart during a decade as artistic director of the Pottsdam Opera House in Germany.

“It was a fantastic opportunity to conduct all the Mozart operas,” he said.

Returning to those roots, Sanderling is doing the musical direction while James Meena, the opera’s principal artistic adviser, has been leading the Toledo Symphony for this weekend’s Classics Series concerts.

Preparation time is short this winter, so the entire production is being pulled together — from music and staging to costume fittings and final rehearsals on the stage — in a mere three weeks.

Sanderling said the 10-hour days rehearsing soloists, the chorus, and the orchestra, are keeping him busy.

“I’m so focused on Don Giovanni, there’s nothing else in my life,” he said with a laugh.

His partner in tale-telling, Brian Deedrick, is a newcomer to the local company, if not to the Mozart opera.

Recently retired as artistic director of the Edmonton (Canada) Opera Company, Deedrick was brought to town by Meena, with whom he has worked before.

Deedrick and Sanderling did not know each other, but have forged a new bond based on friends in common and a shared love of opera and Germany, where Deedrick moves each summer.

Like Sanderling, Deedrick said there is something especially potent and compelling about Mozart’s masterpiece.

“This opera, for me, has always been all about sex,” says Deedrick. “It’s about how they [the characters] define their relationships through others.”

During early staging rehearsals, Deedrick energetically pushed the cast to explore and mine the complex dynamic between Don Giovanni (baritone Philip Cutlip), his servant Leporello (bass-baritone Sean Cooper), and Zerlina (soprano Kathleen Lewek) and her fiance Masetto (bass Timothy Bruno).

Asking for more physicality from the singers, Deedrick said with conviction, “It’s the only full seduction we get to see in this opera.”

And because the Toledo Opera version of Don Giovanni under way in the big rehearsal hall of the Valentine is set in the 1950s, mannerisms and relationships will be expressed in a more contemporary way than the typical setting.

Meena, who also directs the Carolina Opera, chose from several versions of Don Giovanni presented around the United States, settling on the Glimmerglass Opera take. Sets and costumes are rented to Toledo Opera.

“This production sets the classic story in the 1950s. . . It will allow our audiences to view this great masterpiece through a new lens,” he writes on the Toledo Opera Web site.

Noting that Mozart altered his opera shortly after its 1787 Prague premiere, Sanderling said, “The original ending is in D minor. It ends with not only drama but despair.”

Because the composer wanted to present it in Vienna, where he lived, and knowing the Viennese penchant for happy endings, Mozart altered the story line and tonality, much as Hollywood today uses focus groups to alter films.

Mozart’s effort was fruitless, Sanderling added. The opera presented here and elsewhere is the original version.

As for the 1950s setting, “Mozart is so timeless,” Deedrick said. “It doesn’t matter where you put it. It’s about those characters.” He strives for balance between music and stagecraft.

“Mozart, because of its musical complexity, requires focus. It forces you to discern where can you be complicated and throw in details and where do you simplify and allow music to dominate,” he said.

Suzanne Rorick, executive director of the opera, beamed as she talked about the cast, as well as even greater cooperation between the opera and the symphony.

Those who attended this weekend’s concerts will have heard some of the voices soloing in Carmina Burana.

There’s Lewek, tiny and dark-haired with a clarion soprano voice twice her size. The 2011 grand prize winner of the Opera Foundation’s International Vocal Scholarship, she is to make her Metropolitan Opera debut next year.

Cutlip sang Tarquinius with Toledo Opera in its 2010 production, Lucretia. Portraying Donna Anna is soprano Inna Dukach, a Russian-born singer with American training and, an international reputation. Charles Temkey will portray the Commendatore.

Also making his Toledo Opera debut will be Joshua Stewart, as Don Ottavio. A Curtis Institute grad, he is forging a strong national and international reputation.

Rorick also is sanguine that half the cast comes from this region.

That group includes Cooper, of the Bowling Green State University music faculty, who also wrote English super titles for this production. Soprano Jennifer Cresswell will sing Donna Elvira. Cresswell is a key figure in Toledo Opera’s educational activities, including crafting kid-friendly librettos for Opera on Wheels. Bass Tim Bruno (Masetto) returns to the local company with a growing list of successful performances in American opera and music.

Tickets for “Don Giovanni” are $30-$75 at www.toledoopera.org or 419-255-7464. Shows will be presented Friday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. at the Valentine Theatre, 410 Adams St.

Contact Sally Vallongo at: svallongo@theblade.com.