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The Wall Street Journal
November 11, 2009


City Opera's Comeback
by Heidi Waleson

Beginning last Thursday, the New York City Opera staged its resurrection following a dark year, financial jeopardy and management disarray. With straitened means and only a few months to plan (George Steel, the company's general manager and artistic director, started work last February), City Opera's comeback season was pared to 30-odd performances of five operas, two this month and three in the spring. The company also hopes to get a lift from the acoustical and other improvements in its renamed David H. Koch Theater.

"Don Giovanni," the season's only new production, performed on Sunday afternoon, came off the best. Director Christopher Alden's abstract, updated concept was convincing, and a good solution to some of the challenges of this piece. Paul Steinberg's set—two walls angled to create a triangular playing space—also seemed to aid vocal projection, and the strong cast made the most of it.

Mr. Alden stressed the dark side of the opera, making its theme of unrepentant wickedness and its attraction explicit. Throughout the overture, the entire cast and chorus, dressed in somber 1930s-era costumes (by Terese Wadden), sat motionless on straight-backed chairs under a fluorescent tabernacle cross. Principals emerged from the group, and chairs were redistributed around the stage as the scenes changed; the chorus was often onstage, observing the action. The prevailing movement style was slow motion, with inter-character engagement happening only at the last minute, and sudden episodes of sex or violence. In the first scene, for example, the weaponless Don Giovanni approached the Commendatore and abruptly smashed his head against the wall, leaving a bloodstain that remained throughout the show. Don Giovanni began each of his seductions by baring one hand, as though pulling on a latex glove, and then stroking the woman's neck. He was like the vampire that none of them could resist.

The party finale of Act I was choreographed like a dance in a haunted house (Jane Cox did the eerie lighting), making it easy for Don Giovanni to slip away with Zerlina. Act II's many different settings can make it feel like a diffuse string of arias. Mr. Alden's effective solution was to stage much of the act as the Commendatore's funeral, with giant wreaths and a casket. The casket remained on the dinner table for the final scene, and the dead man emerged from it to condemn Don Giovanni to hell. Donna Elvira and the chorus brandished Bibles, giving Giovanni's downfall the flavor of an exorcism.

The powerhouse cast embraced the concept with verve. Perhaps there's something to be said for engaging singers on short notice: This was a uniformly strong group, with six of the eight principals making their City Opera debuts. Keri Alkema was a rich-toned, passionate Donna Elvira and Stefania Dovhan pushed her soprano to the edge, giving Donna Anna more than a hint of madness. With his suave baritone, Daniel Okulitch made Don Giovanni both lethal and careless; Jason Hardy played Leporello as his cringing slave rather than alter ego. Gregory Turay's Don Ottavio was unusually forceful and interesting. Joélle Harvey and Kelly Markgraf made the peasant couple, Zerlina and Masetto, discover their power to resist and their own sexual connection. Bass Brian Kontes was an imposing Commendatore. Conductor Gary Thor Wedow led a vibrant performance, skillfully balancing the voices and the orchestra.