The Asheville Lyric Opera opened its ninth season with Don Giovanni in Diana Wortham Theatre at Pack Place. General and Artistic Director David Craig Starkey announced prior to the performance that Asheville Lyric Opera had been chosen to host HD simulcasts from the Metropolitan Opera beginning in December this year, a tangible acknowledgement of Asheville’s growing reputation as a regional center for opera productions and education.

Following on the heels of the smash hit Le Nozze di Figaro, Don Giovanni was Mozart’s second collaboration with librettist Lorenzo da Ponte. The story of the libertine Don and the dead Commendatore who haunts him was a familiar one, known to 18th century theater audiences as The Stone Guest. Da Ponte’s approach to the subject, however, was uniquely multi-faceted, turning merely a scary story into a “drama giocoso,” part opera seria, part uproarious comedy, part morality play. Mozart’s genius as a dramatist is heard at every turn in music that fleshes out each character and drives the action in exquisite detail. The production premiered in Prague’s National Theater on Oct. 29, 1787, then was revised for a Viennese production the following year featuring the original cast of Figaro. Both versions remain as authentic possibilities for performance.

The cast featured Daniel Lickteig in the title role, Kristen Yarborough (who also serves as the company manager) as Donna Anna, Cheryl Greene as Donna Elvira, Bryan Franklin as Leporello, Roderick George as Don Ottavio, Angela Ruth Hayes as Zerlina, Roberto Flores as Masetto, and Mark Owen Davis as the Commendatore. The small pit orchestra was led by guest conductor Jonathan Hodel. (Kudos to Virginia McKnight who anchored the recitatives from the harpsichord.) Jon Truitt was guest director. Michael Porter coached the small chorus. The opera was sung in Italian with English supertitles.

Although the program contained a short summary of each scene, no musical numbers were identified therein to help the audience readily integrate the music with the action. Also, the final scene of the opera was cut, although the scene synopsis provided a description of the entire act. Without program notes from the Director, we’re left to wonder whether this was a spur-of-the-moment decision, or an artistic one. It would be well for the house management to remind patrons at each performance to turn off all cell phones, and that no flash photography or taping of the performance is allowed. I was distracted several times by someone sitting in front of me videoing scenes using his cell phone.

There were many lovely moments of beautiful singing by the cast. Cheryl Greene’s large, agile voice helped cement the agitated but relentless character of Donna Elvira; Roderick George’s “Il mio tesoro” in Act II was sung with technical fluency matched with the weight of real human emotion. The final scene of Act II with the commanding voices of Davis and Lickteig brought the usual shivers up and down the spine along with the orchestral scales, foreboding brass, and lightning effects underscoring the Don’s demise. 

There were missed opportunities as well, resulting largely from a lack of connection to the music. For example, the libretto states that as the curtain rises in Act I, Leporello is seen pacing back and forth in front of Donna Anna’s house; Mozart’s music literally mimics his actions. What we saw instead was the character seated, drinking lazily from a bottle. It’s clear that Mozart intended to have his character in motion when we first meet him, much like Figaro’s activity of measuring the floor in Figaro. In Leporello’s famous catalogue aria “Madamina, il catalogo è questo,” a comic highpoint, there were ample opportunities to play up the uproarious text with gestures and sight gags. Not enough happened. Elsewhere the cast missed a few vocal entrances and muffed recitatives. The ensemble with the orchestra, extremely difficult given the contrapuntal complexity of the score played at a fast tempo with the orchestra out of sight of the singers, was often ragged. The difficulties of executing rapid text declamations, frequently on off beats, were evident as well. Above all, the production failed to realize an imperative of comedy, that of speed and timing. To quote Roger Norrington, “…slow speeds suffocate action and thought processes, shedding humour and subtlety on the way.” On the seria end of the expressive spectrum, the singers were too frequently unconvincing in conveying the depth of the emotions they were singing about.

Just as the availability of more live performances of opera in Asheville and Charlotte (and the next-best thing, live broadcasts as mentioned above) builds an audience for this genre, it also raises the bar for what we expect from a professional cast. The devil was on stage, and he will ever be there in the details as well.