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That Don Giovanni really gets around.
Not only does the title character in Mozart's opera boast more than 2,000 sexual conquests in Italy, Germany, France, Turkey and Spain, the Utah Opera production opening Saturday brings the legendary libertine all the way to New Orleans.
The move isn't as fanciful as it may sound. Director Nicolette Molnár pointed out that the Don's native Spain controlled New Orleans for nearly 40 years at the end of the 18th century. Though Mozart and librettist Lorenzo da Ponte placed their setting of the Don Juan legend in 17th-century Seville, they wrote it in 1787 - "times of revolution and change, challenge and confrontation," Molnár said. "To me, Giovanni is very much a product of those times."
Molnár imagines someone like Don Giovanni being drawn naturally to the New World. "It would have appealed to his sense of adventure and freedom; it was a new frontier in every sense."
"He represents liberty and freedom," said baritone Christopher Schaldenbrand, who will sing the role for Utah Opera. "Giovanni is testing the waters to see how far he can go. But there has to be some limit so we can all coexist together."
The opera portrays the last day of the antihero's life, a day when the cost of his choices comes due. "From beginning to end, it's a steady downfall for him," Schaldenbrand said.
Things begin to unravel when Don Giovanni sneaks into Donna Anna's bedroom. Exactly what transpires there is the subject of much conjecture among opera buffs. What's important, Schaldenbrand said, is that things go further than Anna intended. Her father, the Commendatore - a man of high position who has befriended and perhaps even mentored Giovanni - comes running when he hears her screams.
"The Commendatore unmasks him," Molnár said, "and [Giovanni] suddenly loses control. He has no choice - he has to kill [the Commendatore]."
Thus ensues a downward spiral for the increasingly desperate Don Giovanni. Donna Anna and her fiancé, Giovanni's friend Don Ottavio, swear to avenge the Commendatore; at the same time, an ex-lover, Donna Elvira, tracks down and confronts Giovanni.
"She thinks they are married" after their three-day liaison in Spain, explained mezzo-soprano Deanne Meek, who will portray Elvira.
"She's the one person who decided to take me up on my advances," Schaldenbrand said, speaking as his character. "I don't like to play him like a complete jerk. He really, sincerely - I don't know what went on in his childhood, but he has to satisfy all these women; he really believes that."
The fact that Elvira goes after Giovanni on her own, rather than letting her father or brothers fight that battle in keeping with the conventions of the time, "is a mark of her strength of character, a mark of her passion, a mark of her love for him," Meek said. "She never gives up loving him, even to the end."
Don Ottavio often comes off as a milquetoast who stands around singing lovely arias. Molnár finds that unfortunate. "Ottavio plays by the rules," she said. Because Don Giovanni is his friend, Don Ottavio wants to be certain of his guilt before pursuing vengeance. "He is a man of honor who works within the system."
In the interest of time, one of Ottavio's optional arias, "Dalla sua pace," has been cut (he'll sing "Il mio tesoro," which was in Mozart's original version, instead). Robert Tweten, who will conduct the Utah Symphony in the production, also is including Elvira's sometimes-omitted aria "Mi tradě." It was his task, in negotiation with Molnár, to trim about 20 minutes from the score. Much of the cutting is from the recitatives - 10 seconds here, another 10 seconds there. Because the score is so rich, "I don't want to give up too much.
"Mozart's operas never get tired," Tweten said. "Great operas have instant appeal, but they get better as time goes on."
Viva la liberta
* MOZART'S "DON GIOVANNI" opens Saturday at 7:30 p.m. in the Capitol Theatre, 50 W. 200 South, Salt Lake City. Evening performances of the Utah Opera production continue May 12, 14 and 16, with a 2 p.m. matinee May 18.
* TICKETS are $10 to $65 at 801-355-ARTS, 1-888-451-2787, the Abravanel Hall and Capitol Theatre box offices, or http://www.utahsymphonyopera.org.
* THE OPERA is sung in Italian, with an English translation projected above the stage. Utah Opera artistic director Christopher McBeth will do a Q&A in the theater's Founders Room after each performance.
* VIVACE, Utah Symphony and Utah Opera's social networking group for 20-, 30- and 40-somethings, will have an after-party at Caffé Molise, 55 W. 100 South, Salt Lake City, on opening night. The $30 tickets ($15 for students) include performance, food and nonalcoholic drinks (a cash bar is available). E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or calling 801-869-9017 to join; use promo code "Vivace" when ordering tickets.
Baritone Christopher Schaldenbrand sings the title role in Utah Opera's "Don Giovanni." Mezzo-soprano Deanne Meek, who played Ma Joad in the company's production of "The Grapes of Wrath" last May, returns as Donna Elvira. (Meek noted that Elvira, a character usually played by a soprano, was also the first role she sang professionally.) Soprano Susanna Phillips is Donna Anna, with tenor Ryan Macpherson as her fiancé, Don Ottavio, and bass Gustav Andreassen as her father, the Commendatore.
Bass-baritone Mark Schnaible plays Don Giovanni's servant, Leporello. Soprano Shannon Kessler is the peasant Zerlina; bass Chad Sloan is her husband, Masetto.
This isn't Utah Opera's first trip to New Orleans. Then-general director Anne Ewers set her 1992 production of Verdi's "Un Ballo in Maschera" there; the current "Don Giovanni" will resurrect Eric Fielding's wrought-iron set. Costumes are by Susan Memmott Allred.