Note to 'Don Giovanni' director: Never skip the chorus of demons

New London — A merely adequate performance of "Don Giovanni" is a pretty fine evening's entertainment. But Mozart's masterpiece of comedy and drama offers so many opportunities for ensembles, soloists and stagecraft to shine that the sky's the limit. You wind this opera up and stand back to see what happens.

Friday night at the Garde Arts Center, the Connecticut Lyric Opera ended its 10th season of productions with a performance of "Don Giovanni" that succeeded by riding the momentum of Mozart's long ensembles, his remarkable 10-minute musical arcs enlivened with characters joining and weaving voices into the action while the music hurtles the plot forward. The evening's success was in no small part a tribute to CLO Artistic Director and Conductor Adrian Sylveen, who with every performance proves his sure sense of direction through long musical structures, even if he doesn't always stop to smell the roses along the way.

Sharing the honors with Sylveen were the two troublemakers at the heart of this Don Juan tale, baritones Luke Scott as Don Giovanni and Nathan Resika as his servant and comic foil, Leporello.

At its best, this opera becomes Leporello's tale, and Resika, with perfect comic timing, a gift for the double take and a commanding and rich timbre, very much made this opera his. As a duo, the baritones' comic and vocal chemistry alone made the performance worthwhile.

This is an opera that begins fully aboil, with a swordfight, a murder and a vow of vengeance in Scene 1, and the Garde stage remained animated throughout. From that vengeance duet, "Ah, vendicar," with CLO prima donna soprano Jurate Svedaite as Donna Anna, who just escaped the seduction of Don Giovanni only to see her father, Il Commendatore, murdered by him, and tenor Christopher Lucier as her betrothed, Don Ottavio, the vocal standard was set high.

This opera requires three principal sopranos, and in the roles of the seduced-and-abandoned Donna Elvira and the naïve peasant girl Zerlina, Heather O'Connor and Emily Hughes both took time to warm to their roles. As Elvira, O'Connor eventually settled into a lovely, unforced phrasing and smooth, liquid coloratura that evoked maximum sympathy from her sympathetic character. As Zerlina, Hughes had some long painful searches for pitch in "Batti, batti o bel Masetto" and other exposed Act 1 arias, but she settled into the ensembles nicely, her ringing bright top a key element. And in the opera's biggest soprano aria, "Or sai chi l'onore," Svediate raised the temperature, seething with Verdian rage and horror.

The sets were minimal, while still serving the action, but a few lighting effects might have made the nighttime scenes, with their mistaken identities, more compelling.

And a word of advice to first-time stage director Chris Browner: When the drama calls for a terrifying chorus of demons to surround the doomed Don Giovanni, don't skip the chorus of demons. Demons are scary and dramatic, like the music. Don't skip them. Not ever again.

The best-known scene in "Don Giovanni" is this penultimate one, when the statue of Il Commendatore, mockingly invited by the man who murdered Il Commendatore to come to dinner, shows up as the terrifying Stone Guest. Bass Steven Fredericks pulled off the characterization wonderfully, thanks largely to excellent makeup, and Sylveen paced the drama with accelerating dread. But when horns were substituted for the librettos chorus of demons, it all fell apart. Perhaps the CLO couldn't find eight good male voices, but whatever the reason, the key scene was kneecapped by the choice.

The two hours-plus of fine music and comedy, led by Resika, weren't ruined by the choice, but the ending certainly was.

m.moore@theday.com

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