Review: The Atlanta Opera’s “Don Giovanni” is often stirring in its noir take

For the second major work of its 2022-23 season, The Atlanta Opera convened at its usual haunt, the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Center, Saturday for the opening night of its modernized take on don Giovanni, the exalted opus from Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. It was a night of consummate performances, let down only through some of the contemporary staging.

Don Giovanni (performances through January 29) is the story of the titular Lothario — a nobleman with an insatiable appetite for womanizing — who finally finds the walls closing in on himself when he is accused of sexually assaulting a young woman, Donna Anna, and subsequently kills her. father, the Commendatore, in the ensuing skirmish. In the course of his prolonged downfall, his sanity gradually unravels and with it the penchant for manipulation that has for so long fueled his exploits.

It is a work at once epic in scope and, in a sad reflection on human nature, timeless. The Atlanta Opera has exercised a considerable degree of creativity in its staging and setting. This time the opera is transplanted from its native realm of 17th-century Spain and into a film-noir-inspired setting that appears to be somewhere in the early half of the 20th century. It is a daring and beautifully bleak setting—one that well serves the final moments of Don Giovanni’s downfall and comeuppance—but not always conducive to the overall tone of the opera itself.

Don Giovanni is, despite its darker themes, a comedy. It is Mozart poking a finger in the ribs of the pompous and pretentious European upper crust that bankrolled him. The music itself is, on the whole, gleeful and lighthearted. The work demands a lead who is a narcissistic buffoon, not a grim and ominous gangster. It is the story of a rich brat finally getting the spanking he needs, not the toppling of a mafia kingpin. That uncomfortable contrast was brought to bear from the very outset of the performance—the overture was played in darkness in front of a curtained stage and hearing such jubilant music in an empty void felt like an odd juxtaposition.

The set, the design work of R. Keith Brumley, is a clear (and successful) bid to capture the imposing angles and towering edifices of the cityscapes captured in black and white film-noir classics like The Third Man or The Naked City: a world where buildings made of shadows jut sharply out of the fog and alleyways are lit only by the glow from the windows above. It is a morbidly beautiful world, one that spoke to my own love of the film-noir genre, but not one that serves the comedic tone of much of the music. As I watched the action unfold, I kept thinking that if Mozart were a filmmaker during the black-and-white era, he would have likely been more interested in directing Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times than Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca.

Bass-baritone Brandon Cedel’s Don Giovanni is appropriately arrogant and cavalier, and his vocal performance is impeccable. Soprano Mané Galoyan has a silken vocal delivery as Don Giovanni’s violated conquest. Their chemistry is palpable and Cedel is masterful at commanding the stage with a presence that seems to dwarf all those around him.

Don Giovanni
Cedel (left) as Don Giovanni and Giovanni Romeo as his sidekick Leporello

Don Giovanni is a work carried out less by the leads and more by the supporting cast, namely Leporello, Don Giovanni’s beleaguered valet, and Donna Elvira, one of Don’s spurned lovers. These roles — here carried by Giovanni Romeo and Jennifer Johnson Cano, respectively — are where the comedy truly shines and, as such, both performers deserve commendation for their work. The audience was awash in laughter throughout, a response all the more notable as players were forced to deliver comedy against an inordinately moribund backdrop.

Brumley’s noir ethos does eventually prove effective in the opera’s final moments, when Don Giovanni is confronted and brought down by the ghost of the Commendatore. George Andguladze plays the part with harrowing ferocity in his debut performance with The Atlanta Opera. His delivery of the Commendatore’s signature bellow of “Don Giovanni!” at the opening of their final confrontation is nothing short of bone-chilling.

That eventual effectiveness of the staging does, however, make the preceding majority of the performance seem off-center by comparison. A more useful modern era would have likely been found in the candy-colored world of the 1970s club scene or the cocaine-fueled decadence of the 1980s yuppie elites. Such atmospheres are more playful and less associated with stern elegance in the public consciousness and would have allowed Don Giovanni time to comport himself as the lovable rascal he believes himself to be before the dark reality of his misdeeds finally sets in.

The Atlanta Opera’s Don Giovanni is a stirring musical performance of the work widely regarded to be Mozart’s magnum opus and a captivating study in the aesthetics of Hollywood’s golden age. It is a shame that the auditory and visual elements fall just short of complementing one another.

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Jordan Owen began writing about music professionally at the age of 16 in Oxford, Mississippi. A 2006 graduate from the Berklee College of Music, he is a professional guitarist, bandleader and composer. He is currently the lead guitarist for the jazz group Other Strangers, the power metal band Axis of Empires and the melodic death/thrash metal band Century Spawn.

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