On November 8, 9, 10, and 11 at the Power Center, University of Michigan’s Opera Theatre presented a smart, witty, and engaging production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni. Director Robert Swedberg moves the action of the opera from 16th century Spain to late 18th century New Orleans, a period when the city was under Spanish rule. By placing it in a setting where class distinctions were so prominent, belief in the supernatural was so prevalent, and the festival of Mardi Gras (or carnevale) offered such natural opportunities for disguises and costume changes, Swedberg delivers a persuasively fresh perspective on the opera’s story line and deftly underscores it themes.

In the original setting, the jilted Donna Elvira pursues Don Giovanni from one Spanish town to another; by making her pregnant, the director gives her a compelling reason for following him all the way across the Atlantic. Another effective detail is the introduction of a voodoo element. Donna Elvira engages a Mamba Priestess to put a curse on her betrayer, which leads inexorably to his dreadful fate at the end of the opera.

The opera’s four performances were double cast, with one cast singing Thursday and Saturday, and another on Friday and Sunday. I attended the Sunday matinee performance. Christopher James Lee led a smoothly elegant performance that captured the comic, ironic, passionate, and sinister elements of the score, and the University Symphony Orchestra played with refinement and infectious energy.

The singers in University Opera Theatre productions are consistently strong but there were several standouts among the soloists. Soprano Olivia Betzen gave an exceptionally mature performance as Donna Anna, with a voice that is pure, penetrating and soaring. She is a thoroughly convincing actress; her dignified bearing immediately established Donna Anna’s aristocratic status, and she made the character’s emotional vulnerability touching and personal. Baritone Juan Hector Periera was a charming and personable but devious Don Giovanni, a character fully aware of his charismatic power, and shamelessly willing to exploit it. Periera’s voice is large, warm, and colorful, and he used it with impressive dramatic insight, and in “Fin ch’han dal vino,” with great agility. (Incidentally, due to the illness of his counterpart in the opera’s other cast, Periera was called in to cover for him midway through Saturday’s performance, so he performed the role two and a half times in three days.) Baritone Benjamin Sieverding brought a natural gift for comedy to the role of Leporello. His directness and honesty made him an ideal foil to the title character and he sang with easy assurance and a full, rich sound. The verbal sparring between servant and master had terrific synergy.

As Don Ottavio, tenor Nicholas Nestorak’s passionate and seamless delivery of “Il mio tesoro” was one of the highlights of the performance. While soprano Imani Mchunu’s voice is not large, it is pure and focused, and her winning Zerlina conveyed just the right combination of coquettishness and confusion. Baritone Paul G.L. Grosvenor was an appropriately befuddled Masetto. As Donna Elvira, soprano Katherine Sanford sang with a lovely, clear tone, and bass Ronald Perkins, Jr. gave the Commendatore stentorian authority

Perkins’ singing was especially powerful in the final scene. It begins with Don Giovanni dallying lasciviously with two young women–who later emerge from the gates of Hell revealed as succubi, demons who drag him to his death. There’s a satisfying poetic justice in having women, on whom Don Giovanni has preyed all his life, act as the agents who deliver him to his punishment.