Electric chords rang through JMU’s Mainstage Theatre on Friday as audience members enjoyed an engaging performance of Mozart’s opera “Don Giovanni.” It was the first live opera put on by JMU’s School of Music since before the pandemic, and the concert hall was bustling and filled with lively chatter before and after the show.
A staple of operatic repertoire with a score by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and story by Italian librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte, “Don Giovanni” weaves together both comedy and drama to create a fascinating plot.
Directed by Jamison Walker, a vocal professor at JMU, the production featured “25 undergraduate and 8 graduate students from the JMU Opera theater,” according to the JMU press release.
Staged in two acts, the serial womanizer, Don Giovanni (Kirk Fenerty), must grapple with the consequences of his actions when the women he terrorizes seek justice. Don Giovanni’s servant, Leporello (Michael Richardson), acts as both a mediator and enabler of his boss's behavior.
“If Don Giovanni is in trouble, it’s Leporello who has to bail him out,” Richardson said after the show, explaining Leporello’s role as comic relief.
The tragic Donna Anna (Megan Zuhowsky), with the help of her fiancé, Don Ottavio (Miguel Espiritu), seeks to avenge the murder of her father, the Commendatore (Kyle Knappenberger). Zerlina (Yige Tang), a coquettish peasant woman on the eve of her wedding to Masetto (Grayson Parker), must fend off Don Giovanni’s advances. Donna Elvira (Nicole Jenkins), a spurned lover awash in emotional tumult, seeks to warn others of his wicked ways.
A talented cast
Opting for a 1950s film noir style, characters wore gray suits and skirts with accents of red denoting Don Giovanni’s corrupting influence on them. Staging revolved mostly around a large double-flight staircase, which made for lackluster scenery, making it difficult to visualize different settings.
However, what “Don Giovanni” lacked in eye-popping set and costume design was made up for by the excellent quality of the performers. The pit orchestra, led by JMU Director of Orchestras Foster Beyers, delivered Mozart’s music with verve and supported the singers with attention to detail.
Charming and solemn songs ranging from solos to impressive quintets are sprinkled throughout, making for captivating character interplay. Fenerty and Richardson stole the show with their powerful baritone voices and frequently elicited laughter from audience members, making for some of the richest parts of the opera.
Richardson said “figuring out what I was going to do for the catalog aria,” known as “Madamina, il catalogo é questo,” was his favorite experience. In one of the most amusing scenes of the opera, Leporello giddily rattles off a list of Don Giovanni’s conquests to a bewildered Donna Elvira, including “one thousand and three” ladies in Spain. Jenkins sang rebukes of Don Giovanni with fire in her voice, skillfully characterizing the changing nature of Donna Elvira’s feelings for him. Zuhowsky with her stunning soprano voice and Espiritu with deep clarity both brought a touching side to the opera’s dramatic events.
Rehearsing during a pandemic
Although opening night of “Don Giovanni” went off without a hitch, the production wasn’t without its bumps.
“It was very hectic, but I will say that it was a joy to prepare,” Espiritu, a music performance graduate student, said. “[The opera] was changed to ‘Don Giovanni’ the first week of class, and so we only had two and a half months to prepare everything.”
Besides the short timeframe, Espiritu explained how wearing masks during rehearsals up until five days before the performance was a “huge adjustment.”
“Masks are what really got us because it’s so difficult to sing with masks,” Espiritu said.
After not performing live since 2020, Espiritu said, returning to a full theater was an “entirely different beast.”
“I’m overjoyed for the opportunity to sing for a live audience,” Espiritu said. “The energy that the audience gives you, it’s electric.”
That electric energy was palpable in the final minutes of the performance as stagehands brought out a table draped in red, brimming with the sins of Don Giovanni. In a finale as grand as it was supernatural, Knappenberger, as an animated statue of the Commendatore, arrived for dinner, singing for Don Giovanni to repent in a booming bass.
The ensuing trio between Don Giovanni, Leporello and the Commendatore made for a bombastic ending, skillfully sung with nuance and emotion. Violins swirled up and down the fingerboard as Don Giovanni expressed defiance, but met with his match, the Commendatore finally put an end to his philandering, dragging him to the depths of hell.
Despite a dry stage setup, the cast of “Don Giovanni” whisked the audience out of their seats, receiving enthusiastic applause and ending a well put together rendition of Mozart’s iconic opera.
Editor's Note: Weisman attended the event Nov. 12, but some characters are played by different actors on different nights. On Nov. 12 and Nov. 14, Don Giovanni was played by Kirk Fenerty, Leporello by Michael Richardson, Donna Elvira by Nicole Jenkins, Zerlina by Yige Tang and Don Ottavio by Miguel Espiritu. On Nov. 13, Don Giovanni was played by Darien Roby, Leporello by Ben Gofton, Donna Elvira by Hayley Zavada Coughlin, Zerlina by Grace Mead and Don Ottavio by John Lopez-Najarro.
Contact Alexander Weisman at email@example.com. For more on the culture, arts and lifestyle of the JMU and Harrisonburg communities, follow the culture desk on Twitter and Instagram @Breeze_Culture.