The Saginaw Bay Symphony Orchestra began its season-long Mozart Festival Saturday night with a wonderfully entertaining and musically charming stage production of Don Giovanni at First Presbyterian Church. It was delightful to have conductor Leo Najar continue his and the orchestra's long-standing love affair with opera, even though the organization's current situation won't permit the expense of a fully staged opera production like Najar so splendidly served up in past seasons.
The cast of eight was universally strong, starting with bass David Little as a swaggeringly arrogant Don Giovanni. Careful never to fall into mere caricature, Little played him, not as the embodiment of evil, but as a terribly engaging man enamored of evil deeds. His mellifluous and arresting voice, coupled with delightful subtleties of acting, thoroughly engaged the audience.
Bass Samuel Smith was brilliantly and understatedly comic as the long-suffering servant Leporello. Smith used his clear and bell-like voice to the end of drawing a sympathetic, fussy, and charming character portrait. Soprano Adele Karam invested the role of Donna Elvira with dignity, power, and a gorgeous voice. Unlike many who have played the role, Karam clearly believes that Elvira's love for the Don arises from her strength, not a weakness or mere madness. Never just the "wronged lady," she imbued even a concert version with singular dimension and depth.
Soprano Diane Penning and tenor David Mannell, as the duo of Donna Anna and Don Ottavio, seemed well matched. Penning's coloratura was clear, poignant, angelically agile, and Mannell fought Ottavio's image as opera's greatest milquetoast with courage and noble attitude. Completing the cast were soprano Fenlon Lamb as the sweet-voiced and alluring servant girl Zerlina, baritone Daniel Gale as her prone-to-jealousy fiancÚ Masetto, and the stentorian bass John Paul White, whose ghostly intoned remonstrations against the Don were elegant and mesmerizing.
Najar and dramaturgist Eric Kisch happily decided not to cement the singers behind their music stands, but rather choreographed movements for them to allow more acting of parts that was expected. By the final scene, the music stands had been abandoned, and the drama unfolded almost naturally.
The orchestra, pared down to chamber size (34 total), was in fine form, delivering a nicely phrased underpinning to the drama all evening. In its small parts, the eight-member chorus prepared by Gregory Largent was delightful and full of dramatic energy. Balance was a noticeable problem from time to time, however. The orchestra was set at the back of the altar area, in a spot that acted as an acoustic shell, which captured their sound and threw it back strong to the audience. The singers, by contrast, were out front, with nothing but the high vaulted ceiling above them, causing audience members to comment that the orchestra overpowered the singers' words at times.
If mounting a fully staged opera presents enormous challenges, concert versions in general (and this one in particular) also have issues which must somehow be addressed. Najar, Kisch, and production manager Kathleen Scott worked valiantly to overcome each. For one thing, there is the venue. Don Giovanni, a story about seduction (some say rape), amorality, and vengeance, performed in a church? It was hard not to notice the giant nine-foot wooden cross suspended immediately above the singers' heads as they sang of such worldly matters.
In order to make the plot of this Italian opera as widely accessible as possible, Najar elected to use the English translation by W.H. Auden, which is a poetic and generally accurate rendering of the plot. However, Leporello's famous Catalog aria, which is universally known by its opening Italian word "Madamina," came from Auden as "Little lady." This can be a little jarring, to say the least.
There was also the length of the opera. Standard orchestral concerts usually last very little more than a couple of hours. However, those that did not leave at intermission (which did not arrive until twenty minutes before ten) were at the performance until after 11:00 p.m. Perhaps a slightly earlier curtain time might have been welcomed by the patrons.
It was, all in all, a performance not to have been missed, which raises the question of why Saginaw and Bay City continue to ignore fervent assurances that this is the finest musical ensemble of its kind in the region. The audience was pitiably small for what those who were there would agree was an incomparable evening of Mozart's finest.