Reflection on the current school of cutting-edge German opera production, and preliminary comments from Günter Krämer, the director of this season’s Don Giovanni for Spoleto USA, prompted skepticism and led me to wonder if I would like the results in Charleston. I anticipated a radical updating, such as that of Peter Sellars’ placement of the work on a Harlem street corner, which approach I loathed. The June 3 performance revealed that Krämer’s approach, while radical, was too complicated to be easily dismissed or ignored.

The undisputed good news is that there was not single weak singer in the cast. All were fine, well-rounded young vocalists, and several stood out above that level of excellence. Used to productions with singers glued to the conductor or his image on secreted TVs, these singer-actors showed extraordinary virtuosity in their musical precision and the elaborate stage business they maintained, even while out of sight line of the conductor. (Surely, more than a few sections would have benefited from a reduction of the hyperactive staging!)

Baritone Nmon Ford was glorious as the brutal Don Giovanni. No matter where he was on the huge stage, and whether facing or with his back toward the audience, his firm and even-toned voice was clearly projected. What a wide palette of vocal color he has, and what sensitive dynamics, and what an array of facial expressions! (CVNC reviewed his Spoleto USA 2001 appearance in Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas and his performance as Kurneval in Virginia Opera’s production of Tristan und Isolde last spring.) The vivacious Zerlina, brightly vocalized by soprano Monica Yunis, was also easily heard at all times. Her portrayal of the fickle peasant girl was enchanting, and her exactness – while assembling set elements, or while scampering about – was astonishing. Soprano Joana Gedmintaite’s portrayal of the brutally raped Donna Anna, and soprano Ellie Dehn, as the sexually addicted Donna Elvira, made for strong dramatic contrast. Most welcome were their having completely different timbres, which made following their lines much easier than is sometimes the case. The Don Ottavio of tenor Mark Thomsen was markedly different from to the usual “wuss” or “milque toast” depictions. There was testosterone in his anger over Donna Anna’s rape, and his solid and well- projected singing was a welcome change from the norm. Masetto was also more strongly cast than is often the case. Keith Phares’ firmly-focused baritone was combined with a depiction of a crafty peasant. The program book failed to reflect a cast change for the role of Leporello – up-and-coming bass-baritone Brian Banion replaced the scheduled Joan Martín-Royo. He was fleet-of-foot and witty, and his voice made a fine foil for that of his master.

Spoleto Festival USA Music Director Emmanuel Villaume kept his charges in tight ensemble and in fine style despite the fact that the entire orchestra was onstage along with the cast. The musicians played with a wide array of color and dynamics, dark and ominous in the thick opening chords of the Overture, and fleet and gossamer when needed. The members of the Westminster Choir did double duty, at one point serving as construction workers reassembling the flooring to cover a wading pool while concurrently singing one of the hearty peasant choruses!

Going to see Günter Krämer’s staging of Don Giovanni as a “theatre of the environment,” I was ready to pan it. It certainly was not what I would want to live with on a DVD. But no video version, projected on a single screen, could begin to convey the live experience, in the theatre. I cannot imagine many places other than Memminger Auditorium, gutted and rebuilt after Hurricane Hugo, providing such a malleable venue. The hall has superb acoustics for concerts.

The set designer was Ulrich Schulz. The old downstairs seating was completely displaced, and a sprawling 150-foot wooden stage was built to accommodate a meadow scene with rolling hills and life-size cherry trees leafed according to the four seasons. A huge fallen head of Michelangelo’s David was at the right, and early on, Donna Elvira sprawled sensually on it. Later, Don Giovanni sang his “Champagne Aria” standing atop it while vigorously and suggestively shaking a bottle of champagne. The orchestra was on stage nearby, and the wading pool was about mid-stage. The back stands of violin players had to abandon their seats during some of the more vigorous horseplay in the pool. About 680 people were fitted in the shallow balcony and on narrow bleacher-like seating on the sides of the stage.

The costumes, designed by Falk Bauer, were generally 18th century. While the peasant chorus wore white during their frolic in the pool, reports of see-through nudity were greatly exaggerated. Don Giovanni, Maesetto, and a few others doffed their shirts, and at one point the Don sported a speedo swimsuit. Their physiques could take the scrutiny.

Because the production sold out early and generated tremendous excitement, it will be repeated during the 2006 Festival. It will be interesting to see if its principal flaw – hyperactivity – gets reined in for that run. The famous “Catalog Aria” is a choice example. Instead of a “black book” or even a scroll, Leporello opens a steamer trunk full of pornographic photos. There were reports of flack from some audience members who examined “props” that drifted offstage. Krämer is thorough, in the German tradition! Donna Elvira sprawls on the pile, looking at them lustily(!) while Leporello sings. Both then grab instamatic cameras and dash throughout the audience, taking photos. In any production, Donna Elvira clearly has “issues,” but too often Krämer’s staging of this character was over-the-top and contrary to the conflicted character described in the text. This seems to have been a big hit with the “theatre crowd,” but was a turn-off for many opera lovers, who tend to expect some consistency in characterization. In another example, Zerlina and Masetto sang the “Batti, batti” duet while installing flooring to cover the wading pool. In the final act of the opera, Leporello and the Don wolfed down Kentucky Fried Chicken from the famous bucket. These anachronisms contributed little to the drama and ought to be dropped.

Added supertitle projections are needed for the second run. They could not be seen from some locations, and others had to crane their necks away from the frenetic onstage action to observe them. Patrons under air conditioning vents were nearly frozen. Still, the positives outweigh the negatives in this truly unique presentation, and cuts in the too-busy staging could boost its attractiveness. My advice to any opera lover not totally committed to traditional staging is to order tickets early for Spoleto USA 2006.

Note: This is the fifth of a series of reviews of Spoleto USA and Piccolo Spoleto events by CVNC critics. For an index containing links to earlier commentary (by Ken Hoover & William Thomas Walker), click here.