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Opera review: 'Don Giovanni' among the revelers in Santa Barbara

August 7, 2010 |  9:06 pm
The Fiesta on State Street on Friday, during Santa Barbara's annual Old Spanish Days, was mostly Mexican. Revelers sported sombreros. Mariachi bands serenaded on street corners. Restaurants were serving margaritas in humongous glasses suitable for recycling into bird baths for nearby Montecito mansions.

Even so, Santa Barbara's tallest building downtown represents Spain, and the historic Granada was the site Friday for Mozart's "Don Giovanni," the sorry, splendid tale of a Spanish nobleman and legendary rake. Another summer ritual in Santa Barbara is the opera produced by Music Academy of the West.

Countless important singers over the decades have come from its voice program, including Marilyn Horne, who now heads it. Friday's cast was no exception. Each of the eight leading singers tackling one of the most admired and meaningful operas in the repertory was expertly prepared and a pleasure to hear. The orchestra and chorus were very fine.

This year, the production, which repeats Sunday afternoon, has moved from the 680-seat Lobero Theatre to the Granada. The 1,555-seat theater underwent a major renovation two years ago and is now a popular multi-use facility that readily serves as an opera house. This means that the program's students, who are professionals in their 20s, have the advantage of a larger stage and pit, along with more modern facilities. The move is clearly a success. The theater looked full Friday, and opera here can now be grand -- Champagne is served in the boxes.

But the move also means a significant loss of intimacy. At the Lobero, young voices bloomed without forcing. Singers learned the art of connecting with an audience practically one on one, a skill that might later prove invaluable in real-world spaces.
Handsome though the Spanish-style Granada is, the proportions are ungracious. An overhang covers the majority of the orchestra seats. The singers sound as if in another room from the audience, and the orchestra seems somewhere else as well.

The venue surely encouraged Friday's cast to strive for big vocal effects that would have sounded vulgar in the Lobero. Surprisingly, conductor George Manahan (who is music director of New York City Opera) and director Chas Rader-Shieber (who often works at City Opera and other U.S. companies) allowed Don Ottavio's aria, "Il mio tesoro," and Donna Elvira's "Mi tradì quell'alma ingrata" to be treated as back-to-back audition-style show-stoppers. But perhaps big-wig talent scouts were in the audience.

Rader-Shieber's production is traditional, with a few modern touches -- Jacob A. Climer's 18th century costumes, for instance, permit Don Giovanni tight leather pants. Judy Gailen's single room set (with doors and windows for characters to pop out of) is decorated with Renaissance art implying more eroticism than the production dared attempt.

Characters reveal themselves slowly, especially Zachary Altman's Don Giovanni. He is an agile baritone who articulates text with considerable care. I think I got just about every word, even through the Granada's boom. He doesn't yet have the Don's magnetism, but the intensity is there and so is some of the vocal suavity. The final scene, in which a stone statue drags the Don down to hell, was strong theater, if too little, too late.

Rader-Shieber restored some of the comedy untypical of cutting-edge modern productions (which take serial rape and class struggle seriously). Julie Davis' Donna Elvira was an old-school unenlightened hysteric but a compellingly dynamic one. Adam Cioffari proved an amiable Leporello. Megan Hart and Aaron Blake made Donna Anna and Don Ottavio an impressive vocal power couple. Julia Dawson's cute Zerlina and José Rubio's tough Masetto went a little beyond cookie-cutter country bumpkin. Richard Ollarsaba was a commanding Commendatore.

Manahan, meanwhile, conducted a tight performance, with nods to period practice and illuminating attention to instrumental detail. But all in all, this is a dutiful "Don Giovanni," an escapist entertainment.

I left it feeling fine about the future of singing but strolled down State Street, its demeaning Fiesta still in progress, dismayed. Mozart's opera brings up philosophical issues of class and sexuality and morality that our society has little resolved. The question remains whether we ask these talented young singers, so full of promise, to face such issues on the opera stage or we simply find our answers in supersized margaritas.

-- Mark Swed

"Don Giovanni," The Granada, 1214 State St., Santa Barbara. Sun. 2 p.m., $10 to $120. (805) 899-2222 or

Photo: (left to right)  Julia Dawson (Zerlina), Zachary Altman (Don Giovanni), José Rubio (Masetto) and Adam Cioffari (Leporello). Credit: David Bazemore / Music Academy of the West