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Everyone's a Critic

The Observer's culture blog

Archives for November, 2012

Friday, November 23, 2012


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.

Posted by John Hilton at 3:59 p.m. | 0 comments Bookmark and Share

Monday, November 5, 2012

CIVILITY: IT CAN HAPPEN HERE, by Madeline Strong Diehl

These are dark times for America indeed. Not just because of all the polarization and disunity we see all around us, blue and red, conservative and liberal--not just because we can't seem to talk to each other or work across the divide anymore. But these are dangerous times because it's not safe to even answer the phone. There is always a robot on the other end, exhorting us in a DEEP SCARY MALE BARITONE DARTH VADAR VOICE that our economy will shut down and the world will end if we don't support or defeat his candidate or proposition. (Who is that voice actor, by the way, and in his real life, does he use his voice to try to get out of paying parking tickets, or bargain down the price of cars?)

Here is my solution; it's simple; it's cheap; it's within reach of all of us. After the election--or before--find someone in your neighborhood who has an election sign out front for the candidate you oppose. And introduce yourself to that neighbor, and take her a plate of cookies, like back in the old days, when people tried to make friends with their neighbors. And if you're invited for tea, the revolution--the real tea party--has begun. Maybe our elected officials have been lead to believe that they are being paid not to talk to people of the opposing party. Let's show them how it's done, and then write them and let them know it's possible, among neighbors of good faith.

Posted by John Hilton at 12:45 p.m. | 1 comment Bookmark and Share

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