When an ensemble of strong voices extends and nearly expends themselves, pouring out their artistry in tribute to Mozart’s genius, operagoers will stand during bows—eagerly. That is precisely what occurred during Opera New Jersey's July 11 performance of Don Giovanni. The cast received a standing ovation from a packed house, deservedly so. On many counts that count when performing Mozart's greatest work, Opera New Jersey succeeded.

Opera New Jersey is a young company, eight seasons old, that imports all the principal talent needed for a summer repertory of three full-length operas. The show was held at the Matthews Theatre in the McCarter Theatre Center on the Princeton University campus in Princeton, where the (unamplified) acoustics of the hall were the singers’ best friend. I heard every syllable of Giovanni’s champagne aria. Andrew Garland as Don Giovanni was technically successful as opera’s most notorious rake of dissolute habits. He demonstrated vocal control and sophistication. Garland was, unfortunately, lacking in requisite charisma and physical stature, as compared to Matt Boehler as Leporello, his manservant, who towered over him even while cowering before him, which was neither a pleasing nor believable bit of staging. This height disparity between the two actors jarred—Giovanni and Leporello should have roughly the same builds. Giovanni’s being substantially shorter made the cape and plumed hat exchange in Act II somewhat ludicrous. Whoever does the casting for Opera New Jersey should pay more attention to the artists’ physical presences before signing them. Giovanni should be more commanding than Leporello in every aspect—physical power, vocal power. Boehler received a much warmer ovation than Garland during bows and not just because Leporello is a clown.

The trio of terrific women brought the audience to its feet–Jennifer Black as Donna Anna, Abigail Nims as Zerlina, and Laquita Mitchell as Elvira–with the top nod going to Mitchell. Her soprano voice soared to the rafters and gave the audience goosebumps many times over. That the women dominated the men in this production seemed to be earned poetic justice.

Besides the casting gaffe between Giovanni and Leporello, the production needed stronger, clearer direction. In the director’s notes, John Hoomes states that Opera New Jersey's version was a combination of ”the old versus the new, the surface versus the psychological, tradition versus re-conception,” which sounded great in the program but didn’t quite work in execution. His ambivalence left the audience more confused than anything else.

I didn’t object to Hoomes’ re-conceptional choices–I just wanted more of them and more intentional use of them; I didn’t know how to feel at times as he vacillated between traditional and post-modern/conceptual elements. Critical to understanding the storyline is the cemetery scene in which Giovanni and Leporello have a supernatural encounter. They meet up with the statue commemorating the man Don Giovanni slew in Act I—Donna Anna's father—and invite the statue to dinner. The statue's nod was barely noticeable because the lighting was too dark, and because both the statue and the headstone sat at oblique angles with very poor sightlines. Some of the discussions at intermission clearly indicated some audience members had never seen Don Giovanni and didn’t know the storyline. They must have been confused by the graveyard scene and the final banquet scene–they weren’t given clear context to understand them. Also, if a company is staging the opera traditionally, in 17th century Seville, and they don’t include a physical appearance of the Commendatore at the end of the opera, relying only on a projection of his face onto a scrim, the audience feels cheated and confused.

The orchestra was capably conducted by Joel Revzen. Look carefully for the ♪ Pre-concert Talk held in McCarter’s Berlind Rehearsal room, a real value add for operagoers and well worth attending but too easy to miss on the website.

By Gale Martin