It was delightful to have the chance to see a performance of my favorite opera, Mozart’s Don Giovanni, on a pleasant summer day. This is an ambitious project for any opera company, no less because the audience will know the work well from lavish productions in big opera houses or from films. It is testimony to the deep bench in Classical music in our area that this full-length opera in Italian, with as many musicians in the pit as Mozart had, can be done on a volunteer basis, to a remarkably high standard. Please note that no responsible reviewer will hold an amateur production to the same scale as for professionals; that’s not reasonable or helpful. What is remarkable is that if you closed your eyes and pretended you were in New York in an expensive seat in Lincoln Center, the singers could fool you.

North Carolina Summer Opera is a local company, that did its first opera performance last summer and formally incorporated last November. Founder and president Helen Wong has done a remarkable job assembling musicians and technicians from all over the state, pulling it all off in challenging times for new cultural organizations. Stage director Rachel Snapp came all the way from Oklahoma. Conductor Shelley Livingston, well known for her work with the Duke University String School and the Durham Symphony, handled the forces well; conducting opera is always the biggest challenge for anyone waving a baton. The orchestra is a combination of students, adult amateurs, and semi-professional performers. The singers are, with one exception, in the early stages of their careers, recently graduated from various conservatories and ready to chew up the stage.* NCSO personnel biographies may be seen here.

Don Giovanni is a profoundly non-politically-correct opera. The only character who behaves responsibly, Il Commendatore, gets killed in the first five minutes and is rewarded by an eternity of being a statue in Hell. All the others have serious compromises. At least Don Giovanni is genuine in his lecherous duplicity and doesn’t pretend to be a wholesome person; he is entirely free of conflicts in his malignant narcissism. Everyone he meets is either an employee, a woman to bed when possible, or someone he can buy off to get out of the way. His low expectations of others are handsomely met by all concerned. For all of his servant Leporello’s regrets and angst, he does what he’s told, and gets to live in a palace and dress well. The women realize DG is a rat, but rich powerful rats are highly attractive in the Darwinian world of mate selection. Targeted females do whatever they can to forget about his lies and believe what he says because, after all, he does have a golden throne. And all the angry menfolk, while making a big show of waving pitchforks, melt into compliance when there’s a big party with fancy food and live music to be enjoyed. This is an opera not about what people say they do but, rather, about what they really do. In that regard, it is a stunningly dark vision about the world that rings true over the centuries.

This performance was in a church with dry acoustics, but the singers could be heard clearly. Except for the parts of Leporello, Don Ottavio, Il Commendatore, and Masetto, there will be a whole new set for the upcoming performance Sunday August 11, so a detailed review of their singing will not be extremely helpful for those planning to attend. It is beneficial to have this sharing of roles, since the opera was funded by the soloists on a co-op basis.

The scenery was limited to two palm trees (needed to hide behind!) and a bench. Much imagination was required, especially in several of the scenes that rely heavily on the hardware of stagecraft. To help out, there were two video screens which were projected the location of scenes and the English translations. The costumes, quite elaborate and well-done, helped a great deal to make up whatever deficit from the sparse stage.

All in all, this was an enjoyable if an understandably long evening. I highly recommend not only showing up for the Sunday show but also financially supporting this new opera company so that we may continue to enjoy its performances in years to come.

Don Giovanni will be repeated on August 11. See the sidebar for details.

*These are the principals: Don Giovanni: Derek Gracey, baritone 8/8 & Adam Dengler, baritone, 8/11; Leporello: Karl Buttermann, bass-baritone; Don Ottavio: Wagner Pástor, tenor; Masetto: Christian Blackburn, baritone; Commendatore: Robert Harrelson, bass-baritone; Donna Anna: Jordan Winslow, soprano 8/8 & Regan Bisch, soprano 8/11; Donna Elvira: Dora Cardona, soprano 8/8 & Constance Paolantonio, soprano 8/11; Zerlina: Logan Trotter, soprano  8/8 & Amber-Rose Romero, soprano 8/11. As noted, bios of all are shown here.