INDICATED BY recent outreach programs that include affordable ticket prices and inviting local comics artists to dress rehearsals, Portland Opera's chief goal is to make opera approachable—to strip away any historically stuffy connotations, while preserving opera's crowd-pleasing abilities. To that end, their current production of the New York City Opera's 2009 staging of Don Giovanni works well.
Mozart could never be accused of gloominess, but the otherwise comic Don Giovanni contains a darker tone that indicates the hollowness of a life lived without restraint. The opera opens with the title character "ravishing" Donna Anna—there's a rapey undercurrent never made fully explicit. Throughout, a wobbly line separates Giovanni's gentlemanly skills of seduction and his tendency to use physical force to get into the pants of any girl that catches his eye. It's clear that Mozart's Don Giovanni is not the Casanova-like loverman that leaps to mind when most people hear the name Don Juan. Giovanni's more than a libertine—he's an amoral monster, a point hammered home when he casually murders Donna Anna's father, the Commendatore, whose ghost returns later.
Mozart's gymnastic music is, needless to say, the highlight of this production, and it's performed with precision, temper, and a salaciousness to match the storyline. Jason Hardy as Leporello, Don Giovanni's long-suffering manservant, is the production's unmistakable trump card, earning consistent laughs as the show's much-needed conscience. Daniel Okulitch is strong in the title role as well, despite a preshow caveat from General Director Christopher Mattaliano that Okulitch was under the weather for Sunday's matinee. I admit to getting Giovanni's paramours mixed up at first, but all three—Donna Anna (Stefania Dovhan), Donna Elvira (Mary Dunleavy), and Zerlina (Sandra Piques Eddy)—distinguish themselves. From a musical standpoint, the production is very strong.
At well over three hours, it's also incredibly long. The decision to stage every performer's motions as very slow walking doesn't help. The set suggests a stark municipal room, part courthouse and part church, dotted by a distracting clutter of chairs and capped by an unsubtle, light-up crucifix. The staging doesn't do much to illuminate the story, which finds its best expression through the captivating performers and Mozart's infallible music.