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Merola 'Don Giovanni' points the way

Edward Nelson (Don Giovanni), Karen Chia-Ling Ho (Donna Elvira), and Szymon Wach (Leporello)
Edward Nelson (Don Giovanni), Karen Chia-Ling Ho (Donna Elvira), and Szymon Wach (Leporello)Photo by Kristen Loken

Merola Opera Program production of "Don Giovanni"

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Madamina, il catalogo è questo
Delle belle che amò il padron mio...

The list of hundreds of beauties Leporello's master has "loved," according to the Catalog Aria in Mozart's "Don Giovanni" appears variously on opera stages as a little black book, a large book of any color, or has no physical representation at all.

James Darrah has a better idea. In his staging, Giovanni is an artist (a dissolute one, of course), so "il catalogo" is a set of sketchbooks, one per country of conquests, with his drawings of nude - headless, nameless - bodies to save memories of what he treasures.

As he sings the aria, Leporello tears pages out of the sketchbooks, holding them up in front of the horrified Donna Elvira, pondering how she may fit with each body, like so many Barbie cut-outs.

This is not regieoper, pointless excess, or just a director's shtick for keeping the audience interested in a warhorse. It's keeping the focus on the work, with insight, innovation, illumination, and respect. The approach characterizing just one example, of the Catalog Aria, applied to the entire performance, with the possible exception of the end of the first act, staged as a comic pell-mell Rossini finale.

Darrah and his production group (http://tinyurl.com/n74bzhq) helped the outstanding 2014 class of the Merola Opera Program prove once again that it's more than a training program, a mere incubator for future stars.

The vibrantly alive, fascinating production of "Don Giovanni," seen this week in a Darrah team-transformed (http://tinyurl.com/mv4wd9r) school auditorium provided not only future promise, but present delight. The young artists gave winning vocal and stage performances, fully involved in the dramatic gestalt that opera should be, rather than a recital.

Under Martin Katz's energetic baton, a combination of San Francisco Opera Orchestra members and other musicians played with consistency and sufficient restraint to allow voices to be heard most of the time. Some of the voices could not be thwarted anyway: Amanda Woodbury's Donna Anna reigned over the hall, a soprano assured of an important career.

Karen Chia-Ling Ho (Donna Elvira) and Yujin Kim (Zerlina) shone with vocal and dramatic excellence; they and the entire cast had their hearts in the performance consistently. The three women were singled out in reviews following the Thursday opening performance in Everett Auditorium; I saw the second (and, unfortunately, only other) show at the Saturday matinee, and for me, the men gave excellent performances as well - not only in their athletic, committed stage presence, but also vocally.

Edward Nelson in the title role and Szymon Wach as Leporello didn't overwhelm with volume (few Mozart roles require that), but in arias, duets, and ensemble numbers acquitted themselves admirably. Benjamin Werley's Don Ottavio was impressive: a fine lyrical tenor with some heft.