Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

A Letter to Three Giovannis -
Part 1, San Francisco

June 17, 2007

Mariusz Kwiecien as Don Giovanni and Oren Gradus as Leporello
Photo: Terrence McCarthy/SFO 2007

I often complain about the lack of variety in opera programming, particularly here in the US. However, the one exception to this rule is Mozart. I am more inclined to tolerate this youngster’s heavy-rotation hits than any other composers' which may explain how I have ended up with tickets to three different Don Giovannis in the next 6 months. My expectations for the first, here in San Francisco, were rather low, to be honest, given the lackluster 06/07 season they have had thus far. Whether or not these low expectations played into my reaction here is unclear, but it is still very much the case that this may end up being the best Giovanni if not one of the best opera productions I see all together this year.

This standard is set in large part by an unusually strong cast including one of the internationally leading Don Giovannis, Mariusz Kwiecien, who holds the stage easily with his commanding and clarion baritone. This is an episodic opera and one of its pitfalls is that Giovanni can get lost in the mix of all the other characters. The mark of a star is managing to keep the central character in focus throughout and Kwiecien does so with ample finesse. (He may not be quite as hot as Erwin Schrott overall, but he ain't bad in the looks department either.) The rest of the cast doesn’t have a slouch among them: Charles Castronovo’s Don Ottavio was romantic, Oren Gradus’ Leporello was both comic and beautiful, and Claudia Mahnke’s Zerlina was fragile without falling to pieces. Twyla Robinson’s Donna Elvira was good if a little bit too shrill throughout.

Elza van den Heever as Donna Anna
Photo: John Lee/SFO 2007
Then there is the matter of Donna Anna. Much hay has been made of the last moment replacement of Hope Briggs with current Adler fellow Elza van den Heever in this role. Briggs is a wonderful singer and her appearance here as the Duchess of Parma from a few years ago sticks in my mind still. Some have written about all of the political and artistic implications of the switch, but frankly, I couldn’t care less. I will say one thing though, if I, as the director, knew before opening that van den Heever could sing the part like she did last night, I’d have replaced a lot bigger names than Briggs’ no matter how good they were. Van den Heever was freakin’ fantastic. Let’s hope this is more than just a one-off Donna Anna trick she does and that we soon hear her in other roles – lots of them in fact.

Of course, Runnicles turned in yet another stellar performance with the SF Opera orchestra, which is especially remarkable given the big-band modern approach they took. David McVicar’s production is also quite good. Eye-catching and modern without being completely anachronistic, this dark and Byronic take on Mozart’s work holds the eye throughout. It is mobile without being overly fussy or precarious and gives the lighting folks, Jennifer Tipton and Scott Bolman a real chance to show off their prodigious skills. I did feel that the ending could have been a bit more ominous and creepy, however. The Commendatore’s fright-night gore costume was more silly than scary. But who am I to complain. This may well end up being the best thing SF Opera has put on stage in over a year, so go see it, if you haven’t already, in the three remaining performances. In fact if you've already seen it, it's probably worth seeing more than once.


Well-written reviews on both "Rosenkavalier" and "Giovanni," and it helps that I agree with you in just about every detail.

I managed to catch Elza van den Heever at a Gay Pride marketing event in Civic Center last year, soon after the people in charge of the San Francisco Opera realized she was a dramatic soprano rather than a mezzo. She sang Lisa's suicide aria from "Pique Dame" so powerfully and beautifully it reduced me to tears, and I've been anxiously awaiting for the rest of the world to catch up. In other words, she's not a one-trick Anna. Can't wait to hear what she does next.
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