Sometimes less is more, and the essence of the art will shine through despite reduced forces and frugal extras. Capitol Opera Raleigh presented a splendid production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni at Jones Auditorium on the Meredith College campus from June 10-12. I must admit that I tried to squirm my way out of this assignment. I imagined that I’d be sitting through three hours of a half-done rendition with marginally competent singers and a dumbed-down orchestration. I could not have been more wrong. This was a production of the highest professional standards and one of the most enjoyable musical evenings I have experienced in a long time. There was also the added bonus of the translated text displayed above the stage. Fortunately, this feature of live opera is becoming commonplace, even in the most tradition-minded houses. There were some glitches – the titles seemed to stop after the first verse of most arias – but overall they worked well enough to follow the story.

Opera is quite often a great spectacle: beautiful costumes, grand staging and scenery, creative lighting and other effects. But at its core is the music. If this is done well by singers, instrumentalists and conductor and you then throw in some believable acting, the audience will easily forget the lack of scenic frills. This is the situation we had here. Don Giovanni is generally considered one of the “big three” of Mozart’s operas ( The Magic Flute and The Marriage of Figaro are the others), and it is a masterpiece.

Conductor and Music Director Al Sturgis used an orchestra of two violins, viola, cello, flute, two oboes, clarinet and bassoon. There was also a harpsichord, used for the recitatives. The thinning down of the string section into a single string quartet configuration is unusual, even for reduced pit orchestras. Two issues arise from this: the totally different sound of one instrument per part vs. even a small section, and the fact that each player must make up in accuracy and projection what might normally be three or four players. The different sound did take some getting used to, but the skill of the quartet was phenomenal. First violinist Pamela Kelly was especially brilliant handling what was the primary instrumental part of the entire opera with extraordinary ease and command. This orchestration retained all the elements of the original score with the added benefit of never even coming close to overpowering the singers – something which is almost always a concern.

I attended the final performance on Saturday evening June 12, and they had already played an earlier matinee. The leads had rotating assignments so I cannot comment on singers who took part in the other performances. In this opera and in general folklore, too, the story of Don Giovanni is a familiar one, so I won’t describe the plot. The title character was sung by Jonathan Rohr, an excellent young talent who will be off to the Eastman School of Music for graduate work in the fall. The Don’s assistant, Leporello, was played with great comic timing by Henry S. Gibbons, who is becoming well known around here in both operatic roles and as a soloist in choral works. These two characters had a great rapport, and both had excellent, powerful voices. Taquisha Coley Rice, who played Donna Anna, was perhaps the most outstanding member of this excellent ensemble. She has a commanding presence on stage and produces a beautiful clear soprano sound without any operatic wobble.

There were a few scenes where a chorus of twelve singers was on stage. This was the one weak aspect. They were a bit uncoordinated in vocal entrances and cut-offs and in stage movement.

As mentioned before, it was a great joy to be able to hear this work without the singers having to strain to project above a larger orchestra. Maestro Sturgis, unobtrusively and without histrionics, sat on a stool before his ten-member ensemble and gave a masterful example of how quietly to lead all the players. There was not one false entrance, the balance was always perfect, and you heard the singers and orchestra as one instrument.

The scenery was very sparse and generally unchanging, but you barely noticed that. There were a few special lighting effects, especially during the famous Commendatore statue scene. Clearly a lot of work went into designing and sewing; the list of stitchers in the program was substantial.

Music and story are what opera is mainly about. Capitol Opera has shown what you can do with dedicated and talented musicians, even with limited means. The attendance was a little disappointing. Perhaps many people were as hesitant as I incorrectly was. I’ve repented. This was a great effort and I know the company will continue to get better.