While mainly renowned for producing exceptional instrumentalists, Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music (founded in 1924) has also had a strong vocal side. Among its famous operatic graduates have been Rose Bampton, Anna Moffo, Benita Valente, Frank Guarrera, Eric Owens and Juan Diego Flores, while a younger crop includes Matthew Rose, Evan Hughes, Jarrett Ott, Brandon Cedel, Layla Claire and Sarah Shafer. And what would singers do without Curtis' alumni Menotti, Barber, Bernstein and Rorem?

But my Curtis opera adventures since about 2000 have often made me wonder: what would audiences do without excellent singers and an exceptional orchestra when the production is mostly unbearable? Such was the case with this Don Giovanni, part of the Curtis Opera Theatre’s collaboration with Opera Philadelphia and the Kimmel Center (since 2008). This peculiar staging was offered in the Center’s 600-seat Perelman Theater, as have been works including Ainadamar, Wozzeck, The Cunning Little Vixen and Capriccio.

Ziyi Dai and Charles Buttigieg © Tobin Del Cuore
Ziyi Dai and Charles Buttigieg
© Tobin Del Cuore

Not coincidentally, Mikael Eliasen, head of Vocal Studies at Curtis since 1988 – an outstanding coach and accompanist and creator of a brilliant world of curriculum and performance – is known for hiring unorthodox directors. I have found their work to be ingenious, clever, bizarre, annoying, and horrifying – about half fitting the first two adjectives, including that Ainadamar and the 2015 Rake’s Progress, half matching the latter three.

Eliasen retires in May, to be succeeded by the potentially ideal team of Eric Owens and Curtis' Master Coach Danielle Orlando: intriguing future.

The Notes from the Director can be useful, even edifying, but I worry when someone needs to tell us what we should “get”. R.B. Schlather, director and costume designer for this Don Giovanni, revealed that he used to love it but now, with so much attention to “power and abuse” he finds it “foul.” Then why take the job? And isn’t his beef with Don Juan? He surely knows that this Don never scores in the whole opera, is tormented by Donna Elvira at every turn and ends up in hell. And what about Mozart’s gorgeous music, expressive of every personality and emotion?

Curtis Opera Theatre's <i>Don Giovanni</i> © William Brown Photo
Curtis Opera Theatre's Don Giovanni
© William Brown Photo

Schlather foisted his inner conflicts on us in the form of harsh lighting (by JAX Messenger and Christopher J. Fry), costumes often grotesque or dull – Donna Elvira a cross between a bag lady and a maniacal Kabuki performer and Don Ottavio in a striped shirt and too-short trousers – awkward, unpleasant actions and interactions, nastiness beyond the libretto and absurd devices, such as Leporello tearing up the catalogo and the Don killing the Commendatore by banging the old man’s head against a piano. The sets, by Paul Tate dePoo III, consisted of about fifteen upright pianos, at or on which the singers sat or which they pushed around the stage dozens of times. Even in the pivotal moment of Donna Anna’s recognition of the Don as her father’s murderer, Leporello and the Don were upstage, moving a piano.

Keeping the chorus in the pit (why?) meant that whenever someone addressed or described groups, nobody was there, the only action being in the music. There are few arias more tender and intimate than Zerlina’s “Vedrai, carino.” Why put the injured Masetto atop a piano and Zerlina at the opposite end by another till the last minute? I acknowledge the humor, however: diva-photos in the catalogo and wine stashed in a piano for the Don’s vino-aria.

Rachel Sterrenberg and Adam Kiss © Tobin Del Cuore
Rachel Sterrenberg and Adam Kiss
© Tobin Del Cuore

Karina Canellakis (Curtis 2004) led the phenomenal orchestra with a refined sense of the score except for some questionable rushed tempi, including in the Overture and “Non mi dir”, nonetheless sung beautifully by Rachel Sterrenberg (Curtis 2015) as Donna Anna. Ashley Marie Robillard was an excellent Donna Elvira, her voice strong yet flexible, mastering her two contrasting tours de force. Both ladies projected individual portrayals, though not always what one expected. Ziyi Dai and Charles Buttigieg were marvelous as Zerlina and Masetto: warm, sweet voices and delightful personalities. Martin Luther Clark, the Don Ottavio, has a pleasant and expressive voice, but he had difficulties in both arias.

Adam Kiss was a sonorous Commendatore, repeatedly materializing, usually to his bereft daughter, and even in the opening bars, onstage with a small boy (at a piano): Leopold Mozart and little Wolfgang…?

Jorge Espino © Tobin Del Cuore
Jorge Espino
© Tobin Del Cuore

Almost unbelievable that master and servant Jorge Espino and Vartan Gabrielian were debuting in these major roles, their rich-voiced singing and energetic acting were so natural, and this while dealing with pianos and dramaturgical absurdities. Canellakis gave us the dubious pleasure of the somewhat comic Zerlina-Leporello duet that is almost always cut (justifiably: Mozart dashed it off as a favor, maybe while drinking) – but a real pleasure to hear these two voices again!

**111