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Can updates to Mozart's opera charm new audiences?

click to enlarge Don Ottavio (Joel Weiss) comforts his wife, Donna Anna (Kelly Cae Hogan) in Don Giovanni. - PHOTO BY MIKE OLLIVER
  • Photo by Mike Olliver
  • Don Ottavio (Joel Weiss) comforts his wife, Donna Anna (Kelly Cae Hogan) in Don Giovanni.

Works age strangely in the theater. In the age of protease inhibitors, a script as recent as Lonely Planet, Steven Dietz' memory play about AIDS from 1993, can seem dated. Meanwhile, Euripides' The Trojan Women still speaks tragically, in the very present tense, to the status of women and the spoils of war—all the way from 415 B.C. For every Shakespeare, there are hundreds or thousands more the likes of Brandon Thomas, whose Charley's Aunt was the toast of London in the mid-1890s.

But a constellation of questions are involved in determining a script's "real" theatrical age. For if we ask what a work says to an audience, tonight, in real time--the primary measure of a work's relevance--in effect we're also asking how much it said to a director, designer and actor, several weeks or months before.

The importance of the audience's identity comes into question as well. The issue doesn't just include who the playwright was originally speaking to. The questions "Who is the present production interested in speaking to--and in what language?" also apply.

These are the Sphinx-like riddles that somehow still baffle our regional theater, which remains unprepared to produce and present Latino and Hispanic theater, years after the quantum demographic shifts of the previous decade.

They also define a fundamental challenge facing American opera. By now, whole populations, whole culture­­s no longer convinced that an art form--or perhaps it was only its practitioners--were interested in pursuing a conversation of any relevance to them have reciprocated that disinterest, with extreme prejudice. The results have closed opera companies and forced others to the brink of bankruptcy.

In response, a number of those concerned about the art form have sought a series of solutions, some superficial, some profound. While many companies have commissioned composers and librettists to consider, in new works, issues from the 1985 terrorist hijacking of the cruise ship Achille Lauro to the phenomenon of Jerry Springer, others have basically repackaged the same old goods in glitzier ad campaigns and upgraded public relations--with more or less predictable consequences.

This is the world and culture within which the Opera Company of North Carolina has claimed it seeks to reinvent itself, beginning with its production of Don Giovanni. An edgy, iconic ad campaign, in which the image of a black spider clings beneath a red lipstick kiss imprinted on parchment, presaged reports of unprecedented openness and outreach: mini-concerts in shopping malls and rehearsals open to the public. The season's theme, "Stories from Your Lives," bore the subtitle "Real people, common situations, recognizable issues."

After seeing Don Giovanni last Thursday evening, here's our preliminary take: It's a start. While we missed the first 20 minutes of the production (due to a football game traffic jam that had cars backed up on the interstate for a little less than an hour), what we saw when we got there spoke both to changes underway and further changes still needed.

Robert Galbraith's staging emphasized the element of stalker in bass-baritone Craig Hart's interpretation of the title role. His Don Giovanni effectively torpedoed the misty romance long associated with Don Juan: This man was all business--and that business involved adding as many sexual victims as possible to a list carried about by his manservant on a laptop computer.

Timothy Nolen emphasized the contradictions in that manservant, Leporello, denouncing the excesses of his employer to the world and to himself--while all the time remaining in his employ; a company man in a city without conscience.

Christine Weidinger's Donna Elvira seemed the only woman with any real agency in the production, as she confronted Don Giovanni again and again with his misdeeds. The luminous voice of Kelly Cae Hogan, which we last enjoyed in last year's Salome, redeemed the role of Donna Anna, before John Macurdy's authoritative spectral Commendatore returned to have his revenge on the reprobate lover.

The stratagem of video technology--live feed from two cameras at left and right corners of the stage, projected onto two triangular pieces of fabric suspended above stage--may have intended to fuse (or mock) reality TV. But when combined with a third projection surface suspended overhead--the screen on which supertitles from the libretto were shown throughout the show--a form of visual ping-pong (with a resulting neck ache by evening's end) was the practical result as our attention kept bouncing from surface to surface.

Don Giovanni
Opera Company of North Carolina


The Lion King, Broadway Series South--Julie Taymor and Michael Curry's intricate puppet creations fill Raleigh's Memorial Auditorium with vivid color, movement and sound, and the songs of the African chorus more than redeem the blander bits in Elton John and Tim Rice's score in this professional touring version of the hit 1997 Broadway musical. S.J. Hannah and Chaunteé Schuler competently anchor the show as Simba and Nala, the future lion king and queen, while Phindile Mkhize, Mark Cameron Pow and John Plumpis support brilliantly as trickster shaman Rafiki, Zazu the bird, and a Timon straight from the Borscht Belt. (Through Oct. 22.)

E-mail Byron at bwoods@indyweek.com.


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