l-r: George Andguladze (Commendatore) and Brandon Cedel (Don Giovanni). (credit: Raftermen)

Dramma giocoso meets film noir in The Atlanta Opera’s “Don Giovanni”

The Atlanta Opera
January 21, 24, 27 & 29,2023
Cobb Energy Center
Atlanta, Georgia – USA
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART: Don Giovanni
Jan Latham-Koenig, conductor; Kristine McIntyre, stage director. Cast: Brandon Cedel
(Don Giovanni), Mané Galoyan (Donna Anna), Jennifer Johnson Cano (Donna Elvira), Duke Kim (Don Ottavio), Giovanni Romeo (Leporello), Meigui Zhang (Zerlina), Andrew Gilstrap (Masetto), George Andguladze (Commendatore). Creative: Janine Morita Colletti, associate director; R. Keith Brumley, set designer; Mary Traylor, costume designer; Marcus Dilliard, lighting designer; Mikaela Baird, associate lighting designer; Dennis Bensie, wig & makeup designer; Bruno Baker, assistant director.

Mark Gresham | 24 JAN 2023

“Fate, or some mysterious force, can put a finger on you or me for no good reason at all.”

~Al Roberts, Detour (1945)

At its core, film noir is about life gone wrong. The stories typically revolve around central male anti-heros, tough guys with tragic flaws, and their blunt disillusionment with the world as they know it.

Far beyond the current-day neo-noir nostalgia for fedoras, cigarettes, dark alleys, and chiaroscuro lighting, its world is a hellhole of existential dread; a black-and-white late-night universe of dangerous Dons and devious dames, shady dealings, double-crossings, lust, mystery, depression, and despair.

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The Atlanta Opera’s production of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Don Giovanni (libretto by Lorenzo Da Ponte) resets the 18th-century opera’s plot, inserting it into that kind of post-WWII urban America. Director Kristine McIntyre’s film noir reconceptualization works for the opera, for the most part.

Brandon Cedel played the rakish and unrepentant crime boss Giovanni, with a powerful voice and alpha-male onstage presence. As his mercenary henchman Leporello, Giovanni Romeo was effective as a not-so-confident comic foil, lending some humanity and levity to the dark-toned atmosphere.

The three women in the story can relate as targets of Giovanni’s unquenchable lusts in the timeline: past, present, and future.

Jennifer Johnson Cano came closest to being a femme fatale, portraying an equally strong but internally conflicted Donna Elvira, who is a persistent obstacle to Giovanni’s plans for debauchery.

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Mané Galoyan, as the aristocratic Donna Anna, was paired with tenor Duke Kim, as her patient and loyal Don Ottavio, both determined to avenge the death of Anna’s father, the Commendatore, played by George Andguladze.

Meigui Zhang portrayed Zerlina as a woman aware of her capacity for feminine guile, seeming to enjoy flirting with Giovanni while emotionally manipulating her jealous fiancé, Masetto, played by Andrew Gilstrap.

The Atlanta Opera Orchestra, led by Jan Latham-Koenig, provided the major underpinning force; Mozart’s music moved the dramatic tension forward, even in parts of Act II where onstage energy sagged.

The staging’s effective film noir atmosphere teamed R. Keith Brumley’s mostly shadowy sets with lighting by Marcus Dilliard and costume designs by Mary Traylor, as they were in 2015 presentation of this film noir version by Lyric Opera of Kansas City, also directed by McIntyre. Dennis Bensie’s wig and makeup design are new to this Atlanta Opera production and cast.

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But there was some need for suspension of disbelief here and there in this production. For examples:

One can more easily imagine a 17th or 18th-century context where servants carry the deceased Commendatore’s body from the garden into the palace. But in a 1950s urban setting, can you credibly imagine removing a dead body from a crime scene before the cops and a plainclothes detective arrive?

The patrons in Giovanni’s supper club were jitterbugging out of sync with minuet music. Perhaps that’s the only way to reconcile Mozart’s music with the popular dances in stylish mid-20th-century supper clubs, where the festivities would begin in the early evening and continue far into the night.

Of course, it is all a performance on stage, but I began to wonder about the visual absence of such things as telephone booths, automobiles, traffic signage, and fire escapes on 1950s urban streets, common in film noir, even if seen only at a distance.

All aglow: Giovanni's Supper Club. (credit: Raftermen)

All aglow: Giovanni’s Supper Club. (credit: Raftermen)

Curiously, the deceased Commendatore appeared to Giovanni several times, seen passing upstage by the audience, unseen by the characters, well before what should be his psychologically hair-raising Alfred Hitchcock moment, appearing as the moving, speaking statue. The foreshadowing takes away a bit of the potential edge.

Ultimately, Don Giovanni’s classic theatrical descent into hell does not happen. No trap door, no billows of smoke and sulfur, no horde of demons. Instead, after the Commendatore leaves, a drunken Giovanni dies accidentally in a fatal struggle over a handgun with Leparello. Ah, but it works exceedingly well, ironically echoing the scuffle over the same gun between Giovanni and Commendatore at the beginning, staged almost identically, ironically emphasizing the fatalism.

And that is where the opera ended. McIntyre chose to eliminate the “moral” buffo sextet finale characteristic of a dramma giocoso, ending abruptly with the final chords of Giovanni’s demise, giving the opera a Puccini-like verismo conclusion.

Lights out. THE END.

The Atlanta Opera will perform Don Giovanni again on January 24, 27 & 29, 2023, at Cobb Energy Center.


About the author:
Mark Gresham is publisher and principal writer of EarRelevant. he began writing as a music journalist over 30 years ago, but has been a composer of music much longer than that. He was the winner of an ASCAP/Deems Taylor Award for music journalism in 2003.