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Merola’s Mozart disappoints in just about every imaginable way

Cast and chorus taking bows last night
Cast and chorus taking bows last night
by Kristen Loken, courtesy of the Merola Opera Program

In the context of the high level of vocal quality and dramatic awareness displayed in the seven operatic scenes presented during the Schwabacher Summer Concert of the Merola Opera Program 2014 Summer Festival, it is hard to imagine that last night’s full-opera presentation of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 527 Don Giovanni should have been such a disappointment. On the other hand the Mozart production involved a totally difference gathering of personnel, not only the vocalists in the solo roles but also the stage director (James Darrah) and the conductor (Martin Katz). It is to these to individuals that we must turn for a diagnosis of why things turned out as badly as they did.

Darrah is no stranger to San Francisco. Only a few months ago he was responsible for the semi-staged realization of Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes with the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) in Davies Symphony Hall, a venue that was never intended for theatrical productions. Working in those limited resources with an excellent cast of vocal soloists (as well as the SFS Chorus), Darrah conjured as effectively intense an interpretation of Britten’s dark opera as could be imagined. On the other hand, in January of 2013, he was also responsible for a floundering staging of an abbreviated version of Henrik Ibsen’s Peer Gynt, working with a rather ill-conceived pastiche of music for Ibsen’s play by several different composers.

When it came to Don Giovanni last night, Darrah seems to have gone back to floundering. There are only eight characters in this opera, but each has a critical role to play in Lorenzo Da Ponte’s conception of the narrative. Unfortunately, Darrah never seemed to endow any of these roles with the solid foundation of a human personality that makes this opera so compelling. One reason for his failure to do so may have been his total disregard of any sense of place within which the actions of these characters would unfold. Instead, those characters inhabited a vaguely defined dream world that, at best, suggested a photographer’s studio for a pornographic magazine. The result was a Don Giovanni with no story to tell, even to those so familiar with the opera that they knew Da Ponte’s words backwards and forwards.

In such a situation, one might have hoped that the Merolini would fall back on the music and make the best of things. Unfortunately, Katz offered little to work with from his podium. His ensemble was as consistently ragged as the musicians for the Schwabacher Concert had been crisp and sensitively attuned to the radical shifts in rhetoric from one scene to the next. Katz’ Mozart was soggy when Mozart was brisk and dragging when Mozart’s introspective language sought out the core of a character’s sensitive personality. In the midst of this muddled confusion, it was no surprise that there was an almost total absence of chemistry between conductor and vocalists, particularly when it came to balancing their dynamics against those of the instrumentalists.

The Merola Opera Program has an impressively long track record of perceptively memorable productions, but last night was an evening that is best forgotten.