Category Archives: Classic Opera

Opera Phila’s ‘Don Carlo’ oddly satisfying

Operatoonity.com review: Don Carlo presented by Opera Philadelphia
Composer: Giuseppi Verdi; text by Joseph Méry and Camille du Locle
Live performance: Sunday, April 26, 2015
The Academy of Music, Philadelphia
4-stars

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Opera Philadelphia’s Don Carlo |photos courtesy of Opera Philadelphia

The afternoon’s performance began with an announcement that role of Princess Eboli would be sung by mezzo-soprano Ekaterina Gubenova, who would warble from the wings while Michele DeYoung who suffered from bronchitis would act out the role only, lipsyncing throughout. One had to divide one’s attention three ways whenever Princess Eboli appeared–between the raked stage, the wings, and the supertitles.

The unveiling of an incomprehensible design concept followed–an octagonal backdrop that left me scratching my head because I didn’t understand how it related to story of the King of Spain marrying his son’s fiancée, a French princess, to end the war between France and Spain. The idea that one of the most powerful leaders of the Western world pined that the woman he stole from his son didn’t really love him may be a commonly romanticized Verdi sensibility but seemed ludicrous based on the actions of world leaders today.

Finally, at the beginning of the second half, an announcement was made that bass baritone Eric Owens, the show’s most luminous performer, was not feeling well and asked for the audience’s forbearance in the event his powerhouse aria wasn’t at its best.

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Bass-baritone Eric Owens as King Philip II | courtesy of Opera Philadelphia

While none of those items individually are deal breakers, they did lend themselves to an unusual experience collectively. The human voice may be the frailest of instruments–we all know that. Nonetheless, the audience is disappointed when it fails the performers in the show they are so expectant to see.

Dimitri Pittas as Don Carlo and Troy Cook as Rodrigo.

(L-r) Dimitri Pittas as Don Carlo and Troy Cook as Rodrigo.

As the lovelorn Don Carlo, New York tenor Dimitri Pittas was simply a dream. He looked the role and sung with unrelenting power and fluid grace. Singing the role of his former fiancée Elisabeth was soprano Leah Crocetto, who sang sweetly and precisely but was not ideally suited for the role physically as Don Carlo’s lover, coveted by men.

Leah Crocetto as Elisabeth De Valois

Leah Crocetto as Elisabeth De Valois

Ekaterina Gubanova

Ekaterina Gubanova

While no one would wish bronchitis on any performer, DeYoung’s illness did offer a first-time opportunitiy to hear Gubanova sing Princess Eboli. She recently performed the role at the Metropolitan Opera and was in top voice. She sings with temerity and a sultry black swan quality. I will certainly be looking for opportunities to see her perform in the near future. She was mesmerizing–merely singing opera in concert.

Baritone Troy Cook from Quakertown, Pennsylvania was ideally cast as the passionate Rodrigo who convinces Carlo to ask his father for governorship of Flanders, becomes King Philip’s pawn, and loses his life. He has a compelling presence on stage with a lyric baritone that is beautiful and powerful.

The biggest name on the bill was Metropolitan Opera star Eric Owens as King Philip. Despite the disclaimer that he wasn’t feeling well, his second-half aria where he laments that fact that Elisabeth never loved him was a showstopper. I have seen Owens perform several times, and if he could have sung that aria better than he did that afternoon, it would have been an operatic miracle. That being said, it does detract from one’s willing suspension of disbelief to be notified that he was ill. I was half expecting him to collapse on stage throughout because the aria is so physically and emotionally taxing.

As evil and selfish as he is, somehow King Philip doesn’t emerge from this story as the Numero Uno Baddie. That would be the The Grand Inquisitor sung with chilling menace by bass Morris Robinson.

Eric Owens as King Philip II and Morris Robinson as the Grand Inquistor

(L-r) Eric Owens as King Philip II and Morris Robinson as the Grand Inquistor

Yes, this opera does remind the audience that the reign of the Spanish Inquisition was one of the darkest periods in Western history. Not an easy feat. Consider all the other major contenders. However, did the production have to look so dark? The costumes varied from black to jet black, the set was dark and enigmatic throughout with dark atmospheric lighting, the storyline is relentlessly dark, and the overall effect was, well, oppressive. Sometimes dark becomes darker with the occasional infusion of light and lightness.

One such reprieve very early on was the Women’s Chorus singing as Elisabeth’s attendants. They were lovely to hear and see. Remarkable that the most oppressed sound and look light and airy in this opera and the oppressors dark and heavy.

Many elements made the show oddly satisfying, the Opera Philadelphia Orchestra notwithstanding. Conducted by Corrado Rovaris, the orchestra delivered one of the most consistently striking and admirable performances of the show.

This was an ambitious show, even for Opera Philadelphia. Often in partnership with other companies, in this case WNO and Minnesota Opera, they continue to offer important and challenging works and not just those that commonly appear in the repertoire. They deserve kudos for performing complex operas that aren’t always easy to enjoy. They are making their mark in the opera firmament by being brave and often upstart, demonstrating there’s room for more than one premier company on the East Coast.

 

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Filed under Classic Opera, Italian opera, opera star power, Regional opera, Reviews

AVA’s L’italiana sails despite evening’s perfect storm of challenges

Operatoonity.com reviewL’italiana In Algeri presented by the Academy of Vocal Arts
Composer: Gioachino Rossini; libretto: Angelo Anelli based on his earlier text set by Luigi Mosca
Live performance: Tuesday, November 18, 2014
Goodhart Hall: Bryn Mawr College, Bryn Mawr, PA

The Academy of Vocal Arts (AVA), Philadelphia’s premiere opera training academy, routinely transports nearly every production to the Greater Philadelphia suburbs including the Centennial Hall at The Haverford School. This is a much heralded tradition that operagoers appreciate. It’s a lovely hall and very convenient for suburban opera lovers.

The AVA can’t be faulted that the day the company was scheduled to offer L’italiana In Algeri in Haverford was  frigidly cold for November in Pennsylvania–below freezing all day. They discovered their venue’s heating system was inoperable and had to quickly relocate nearby for that evening’s show.

The cast of L’italiana in Algeri, presented by the Academy of Vocal Arts, 2014

Though the venue was toasty warm, Goodhart Hall at Bryn Mawr College had no orchestra pit, so the entire orchestra had to pile onto the stage for the performance, which left only the proscenium available for performers. Nor could the set from Centennial Hall be readily installed at Goodhart. Lastly, the facility could not accommodate supertitles, so none were offered, at least to those audience members sitting in the balcony, such as this reviewer.

Despite all these challenges, the performers were there to put on a show and perform they did. They seemed unfazed by the musicians behind them, the lack of set around them, and  in the absence of supertitles, every audience member laser-focused on their performances, trying to extract meaning from every note, every gesture, and every facial expression.

I suppose the company had a bit of fortune that all this occurred during a Rossini dramma giocoso. The storyline is a happy marriage of nefarious plotting against a pair of deserving and attractive lovers, which is foiled, of course, so the evening can be all wrapped up in a happy-ending bow.

The Turkish Bey Mustafà is bored with his harem, wants an Italian girl, and, lo and behold, a made-to-order beauty, Isabella, washes up on shore with a band of pirates:

Isabella and the band of shipwrecked pirates

As the much-admired L’italiana, mezzo-soprano Hanna Ludwig delivered a sturdy performance. The role was written for a contralto, and at times, it seemed the lowest notes required fell outside of this mezzo’s comfort range.

Mezzo-soprano Hannah Ludwig as Isabella

She did have a great sense of comic timing, especially with the band of shipwrecked pirates.

As the Italian slave Lindoro, Australian tenor Alasdair Kent had that all important Rossini tenor ping to his voice. His lovelorn affect was endearing. His voice cracked a few times throughout the night,  but his acting and onstage presence were solid.

Tenor Alasdair Kent sang the role of the lovesick Lindoro

Best performance of the evening honors must go to bass-bariton André Courville as the Turkish Bey Mustafà. His powerful voice and spot-on characterization never wavered. He was imperious and comical at the same time. As Mustafà, he appeared completely unfazed by the change of venue, lack of meaningful set, orchestra playing behind him, and clambered onto and off his makeshift throne with aplomb. His scenes with Michael Adams as Isabella’s would-be lover Taddeo were magical. Bravo, Mr. Courville.

From left to right: baritone Michael Adams as Taddeo and bass-baritone André Courville as Mustafà.

Because the ensemble exchanges roles throughout the run of the show–the principals are typically double-cast–the AVA chorus is perpetually excellent and a highlight of any AVA show. And even though the role was smaller, Anush Avetisyan as the discarded wife Elvira and her clear soprano with its bell-like timbre brightened the stage with each entrance.

Alasdair Kent as Lindoro and Anush Avetisyan as Elvira

Costumes by Val Starr were lush and lovely–a sparkling cut above. While the turquoise palette used to represent Algier was so appealing, the portable blocks which seemed to be configured and reconfigured incessantly and nonsensically became distracting. Credit director Dorothy Danner for instilling in her cast a “show-must-go-on” ethos, or perhaps that credit is shared with the AVA faculty.

I was expecting the AVA orchestra to overpower the singers–the number of pieces alone (31!) was foreboding–but was pleasantly surprised by the control that conductor Richard A. Raub exerted over his musicians–their contributions were balanced and beautiful.

Not every company could’ve salvaged a show following a perfect storm of trouble, but they all deserve credit for weathering the unexpected woes. The cast was richly rewarded with applause and cheers at curtain call.

And  should this ever happen again, to the behind-the-scenes folks who did a heroic job notifying subscribers regarding the change of venue, don’t forget that those reviewing the show need to know this information in a timely fashion, too.  No reviewer likes to get a parking ticket just because she tried to make curtain at a dark and unfamiliar venue.

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Filed under Classic Opera, Italian opera, music and humor, Opera and humor, Regional opera, Reviews

‘Butterfly’ soars at Glimmerglass

Operatoonity.com review: Madame Butterflypresented by Glimmerglass Festival
Live performance: Tuesday, July 29, 2014
The Alice Busch Opera Theater, Cooperstown, NY
5.0 stars

five stars

The Glimmerglass Festival's 2014 production of Puccini's "Madame Butterfly." Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

The Glimmerglass Festival’s 2014 production of Puccini’s “Madame Butterfly.” Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

Exceedingly beautiful, tender, and elegiac, well executed in every aspect. The new production of Madame Butterfly at the Glimmerglass Festival in Cooperstown is an elegant, extraordinary show that delivers on all the weighty expectations placed on a beloved Puccini work.

It featured an evocative and versatile set and special effects including a shower of pale pink rose petals …

Yunah Lee as Cio-Cio-San in The Glimmerglass Festival's 2014 production of Puccini's "Madame Butterfly." Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

Yunah Lee as Cio-Cio-San in The Glimmerglass Festival’s 2014 production of Puccini’s “Madame Butterfly.” Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

. . . and, later,  a billowing curtain of blood.

Yunah Lee as Cio-Cio-San and Dinyar Vania as Lieutenant B.F. Pinkerton in The Glimmerglass Festival's 2014 production of Puccini's "Madame Butterfly." Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

Yunah Lee as Cio-Cio-San and Dinyar Vania as Lieutenant B.F. Pinkerton in The Glimmerglass Festival’s 2014 production of Puccini’s “Madame Butterfly.” Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

It was a consummate theatrical production under the directorial aegis of the Festival’s Artistic and General Director Francesca Zambello, offering a sweeping saga of the powerful tensions between traditional Eastern and imperialistic Western values and culture as distilled through the single act of abandonment of a sympathetic heroine by a blundering American naval officer that drove many audience members to tears as early as the first act and storming to their feet a standing ovation by curtain call.

Amidst hours of artistry, stunning music, and many spectacular voices, it takes some kind of  special performer portraying Butterfly to soar higher than all others and all the other elements, elevating a production to a transformative operatic experience. As Cio-Cio-San, Korean soprano Yunah Lee sang a Butterfly for the ages, worthy of elegy. Lee conveyed power, beauty, and grace in every note, in every gesture, in every facial expression–a living, breathing symbol of that lovely butterfly whose wings are pinned down by Westerners seeking to preserve and enjoy them by killing them.

Yunah Lee as Cio-Cio-San with members of the ensemble in The Glimmerglass Festival's 2014 production of Puccini's "Madame Butterfly." Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

Yunah Lee as Cio-Cio-San with members of the ensemble in The Glimmerglass Festival’s 2014 production of Puccini’s “Madame Butterfly.” Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

Everything Lee sang was perfection, from the famous Act I love duet with Pinkerton played impressively by American tenor Dinyar Vanya beginning with Bimba, Bimba, non piangere…

Dinyar Vania as Lieutenant B.F. Pinkerton and Yunah Lee as Cio-Cio-San in The Glimmerglass Festival's 2014 production of "Madame Butterfly." Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

Dinyar Vania as Lieutenant B.F. Pinkerton and Yunah Lee as Cio-Cio-San in The Glimmerglass Festival’s 2014 production of “Madame Butterfly.” Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

…to the opera’s most famous aria Un bel dì, delivered flawlessly. Though the audience knows through Suzuki’s reactions that Pinkerton is not coming back to live with her, somehow Lee has made us believe through her powerful rendition that there’s a glimmer of chance of a happy reunion–even if we’ve seen the show before, numerous times.

Kristen Choi as Suzuki and Yunah Lee as Cio-CIo-San in The Glimmerglass Festival's 2014 production of "Madame Butterfly." Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

Kristen Choi as Suzuki and Yunah Lee as Cio-CIo-San in The Glimmerglass Festival’s 2014 production of “Madame Butterfly.” Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

As Suzuki, American mezzo and Young Artists Kristen Choi was first-rate, turning in a nuanced and polished performance beyond her years, totally believable as Butterfly’s loyal maid, who is, if not older, considerably more worldly wise.

And the list of impressive performances continues. As Sharpless, Ukrainian tenor Aleksey Bogdanov sang the role with uncommon depth and sensitivity.  In addition to substantial artistry, Bogdanov has enormous stage presence and intelligence. Each of his warnings to Pinkerton, “Didn’t I tell you to be careful?” rings more urgent than the last because this Sharpless understands the consequences of Pinkerton’s actions even though Pinkerton himself remains clueless until the final scene of the show.

Kristen Choi as Suzuki and Aleksey Bogdanov as Sharpless in The Glimmerglass Festival's 2014 production of Puccini's "Madame Butterfly." Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

Kristen Choi as Suzuki and Aleksey Bogdanov as Sharpless in The Glimmerglass Festival’s 2014 production of Puccini’s “Madame Butterfly.” Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

Tenor Dinyar Vanya was ideally cast as Pinkerton. He has a clear, spinto quality to his voice that one expects of a leading man in a Puccini opera. His infatuation with Butterfly was so believable rendered and his love duet with her to end the first act so beautifully sung, it brought this reviewer to tears.

Dinyar Vania as Lieutenant B.F. Pinkerton in The Glimmerglass Festival's 2014 production of "Madame Butterfly." Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

Dinyar Vania as Lieutenant B.F. Pinkerton in The Glimmerglass Festival’s 2014 production of “Madame Butterfly.” Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

Though not a singing role, special mention must go to little Louis McKinny, as Sorrow, Butterfly and Pinkerton’s three-year-old son. Somehow, this adorable child understood how critical his role is to the success of the production. He executed his stage directions perfectly, comforting his stricken mother, even remembering to innocently play with the toy boat as he marched offstage, just as he was instructed to do.

Yunah Lee as Cio-Cio-San and Louis McKinny as Sorrow in The Glimmerglass Festival's 2014 production of Puccini's "Madame Butterfly." Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

Yunah Lee as Cio-Cio-San and Louis McKinny as Sorrow in The Glimmerglass Festival’s 2014 production of Puccini’s “Madame Butterfly.” Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

The show was conducted by the Festival’s new music director Joseph Calaneri. During the smaller more intimate moments of the show, he conducted his capable musicians as if they were gloved on his hand. But in the initial numbers of the first act, it seemed like both Vania and Bogdanov had to compete with the orchestra to be heard and both have huge voices.

Those who have seen ‘Butterfly’ before might be surprised by the directorial choices in this production. Scenes that have been traditionally set in Cio-Cio San’s village are set in the American Consulate instead. Personally, I found this to be an effective choice in driving home the themes central to the piece, including the intrusion of American military power and influence abroad without an adequate respect for and understanding of foreign peoples and cultures.

Set design was by Michael Yergen and lighting by Robert Wierzel.

Set design was by Michael Yergen and lighting by Robert Wierzel.

So yes, this production offers a different artistic approach, but a winning one, and the work of all involved from the sometimes ethereal-as-butterfly-wings scrims and fly pieces designed by Michael Yeargan to the period costumes by Anna Yavich to the lighting by Robert Wierzel all combined synergistically to splendid effect.

It is an original version and yet one that lifts up the music and conventions of Madame Butterfly painstakingly inserted by the composer and the original librettists that begs to be seen.  There are six more performances of Madame Butterfly at Glimmerglass Festival through August 23. Don’t miss it.

* * *

Every mainstage performance is preceded by a Show Talk beginning one hour before curtain. The Show Talk for Butterfly was given by Director Francesca Zambella and is a wonderful add-on that will enrich your Glimmerglass Festival experience.

 

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Filed under 20th Century Opera, Classic Opera, Favorite arias, Festival Opera, North American Opera, Opera festivals, Reviews

AVA’s Manon is playful, pretty, and purposeful

Operatoonity.com review: Manon presented by the Academy of Vocal Arts
Live performance: Wednesday, May 7, 2014
Centennial Hall, The Haverford School
4.5 stars

four and a half stars

 

 

Manon, AVA, 2014

Julia Dawson as Javotte and Anush Avetisyan as Poussette | Photo credit Paul Sirochman Photography

Pretty in pink. Playful and sensual. The Academy of Vocal Arts’ (AVA) new production of Manon by Charles Massenet was a sensual, floridly elegant success, owing to purposeful direction by Tito Capobianco and solid execution.

Surely the inspired set design by Peter Harrison, which paid homage to a scandalously famous rococo painting, and the stunning costumes by Val Starr made this the most beautiful production this reviewer has ever seen at the AVA.

Since a work of art suggestive in its time served as a muse for the production team, the show also had an earthy verismo quality to it. While the powdered wigs and brocade ensembles lent the show a Mozartian sensibility,  the passionate clutches and languishing sighs were all Puccini. Verismo Massenet? You had to see it to believe it.

Daniel Noyola Monsieur de Bretigny and Sydney Mancasola as Manon. Photo credit Paul Sirochman Photography

Daniel Noyola as Monsieur de Bretigny and Sydney Mancasola as Manon. Photo credit Paul Sirochman Photography

Manon is a classic “tart-with-a-heart” story that sets the title character on a life journey that is novel-worthy in scope and emotional depth. Her journey is exceedingly hard to capture, even in a five-act opera, though many companies have made an effort to do so. The AVA’s most recent production certainly made a game and valiant go of it.

Sydney Mancasola as Manon in Act I

Sydney Mancasola as Manon in Act I

As Manon, Sydney Mancasola was more believable and sympathetic as the virginal girl headed to a convent whose life is forever altered when she meets La Chevalier Des Grieux and finds love. Sometimes singers are swallowed up by the too-loud AVA orchestra and forced to push too much to be heard, but there was no danger of this happening to Mancasola. Can a singer be too loud? Yes, I believe at times she was. Though there was power and beauty in her singing, she needs to back off those pince-nez shattering high notes at times. She was, however, a delight in the much anticipated Gavotte scene–confident, charming, and vocally arresting.

Diego Silva as Des Grieux and Sydney Mancasola as Manon in the final act . Photo credit Paul Sirochman

Diego Silva as Des Grieux and Sydney Mancasola as Manon in the final act. Photo credit Paul Sirochman

As Chevalier Des Grieux, Mexican tenor Diego Silva turned in a worthy performance. He has an Italianate quality to his singing and also to his onstage affect. Singing this French opera was a bit beyond his reach though he had many shining moments that evening and a stage presence that is endearing. Des Grieux also makes a life-altering journey, from love at first sight, to hating Manon for her excess, and then loving her in spite of her shortcomings, which he conveyed with conviction, despite his tender years.

All the men in supporting roles were simply splendid–bass-baritone Daniel Noyola as the scheming Monsieur de Bretigny, baritone Michael Adams as Manon’s cousin Lescaut,  tenor AVA Alumnus Jeffrey Halili ’06 as the opportunistic Guillot Morfontaine, and bass-baritone Musa Ngqungwana as the manipulative Le Comte des Grieux. With all these men consipiring against her, Manon never had a chance for a truly happy life.

Armando Piña, Jessie Nguenang, Daniel Noyola, and Sydney Mancasola. Photo credit Paul Sirochman

Armando Piña, Jessie Nguenang, Daniel Noyola, and Sydney Mancasola. Photo credit Paul Sirochman

It also must be said that the women in the supporting and ensemble roles were delightful–beautiful to see and hear. Brava to Anush Avetisyan as Pousette, Julia Dawson as Javotte, and Alexandra Schenck as Rosette, whose talents and feminine wiles lured Manon to explore her innermost desires for love and luxury. Surely one of the advantages of seeing AVA productions is that the company members not singing leads in the current show comprise the ensemble. Every choral number is a treat.

Alexandra Schenck, Daniel Noyola, Julia Dawson, Anush Avetisyan, and Jeffrey Halili (AVA '06). Photo credit Paul Sirochman Photography

Alexandra Schenck, Daniel Noyola, Julia Dawson, Anush Avetisyan, and Jeffrey Halili (AVA ’06). Photo credit Paul Sirochman Photography

Massenet’s duets are also masterful, but I still miss the precision and impact of Mozart and Verdi in his quartets and quintets, which seem to spill out like unruly, leggy blossoms at the end of the growing season. Perhaps the small group numbers are harder to sing but those parts of the show seemed to be the weakest.

As for Christofer Macatsoris’ conducting, the tempi were perfect–critical in a long work that the score not drag. A little less volume might have helped the singers to rein in their occasional vocal “shouting.”

Overall, a winning production of a beautiful opera in the repertoire, and worthy of the generous ovation accorded them all at the evening’s end.

 

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Filed under Classic Opera, costumes, North American Opera, Opera and humor, Previews

why is Don Giovanni so hard to do well?

According to a list I found called 100 Greatest Operas, Don Giovanni is listed as #3. According to OperaBase tables, it is also the 10th most frequently performed opera in the world.

While I am not doubting these rankings–the opera certainly pops up in my Fave Five–it is a great curiosity to me why so few companies, well-resourced ones at that–can manage a bang-up presentation of the famous dramma giocoso.

If one takes stock in Michael White’s 2014 review of  the Royal Opera House’s Don Giovanni at Covent Garden, he contends it is within the nature of the production itself that makes it hard to pull off.  It is many things such as comedy, tragedy, sexual assault, murder, masquerade, chase, supernatural interaction. As such, the opera constitutes an “invitation to excess”  for less-disciplined directors.

Confounding the greatest of expectations, the Met’s “new” production (2011) was considered lackluster and underdone by a number of critics, including Tommasini. A quick Google show points to numerous companies who didn’t hit the mark with arguably Mozart’s greatest opera.

Don Giovanni at New York City Opera, 2009 (Christopher Alden, director)

Don Giovanni at New York City Opera, 2009 (Christopher Alden, director)

In my recent review of Opera Phila’s Don Giovanni, I mentioned how much I liked Christopher Alden’s production at New York City Opera in 2009. The New York Times reviewer said Alden revitalized a masterpiece, and I concur.

What I wouldn’t give to see a Don Giovanni like that again! Although, in the interest of full disclosure, during intermission, people complained about the Alden version, that it was too regie. Honestly, I thought it was pure-dead brilliant.

Lacking a truly great performance to attend, in the interim, there are many fine recorded performances to listen to. And I’ll keep hoping to see another Don Giovanni for the ages before I shuffle off my mortal coil. Fingers crossed.

How about you, dear readers? Where have you seen a Don G. for the ages?

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