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Opera Grand Rapids Stages Don Giovanni

Despite its themes of lechery, betrayal, and damnation, Opera Grand Rapids' production of Don Giovanni proves light and funny.

/Joel Bissell / Opera Grand Rapids

After an absence of two years, Opera Grand Rapids returned to Devos Performance Hall with Don Giovanni. Times had changed; an attendant confirmed COVID-19 vaccination or the results of a recent negative test, and masks were required throughout the performance. As the lights dimmed, though, everything  but the music melted away.

The opera begins with Leporello, servant to the titular character, singing of a wish to be free of his master. This production is set in contemporary times, as his clothes make clear; he might have been an Eastern European  man headed for a night at the club. Alex Soare portrayed him convincingly, his rich voice investing the character with dignity and even nobility.

His master soon appears, intent on rape. Richard Ollarsaba, who plays Don Giovanni, commanded the stage from the first moment he set foot on it. Tall, swaggering, and thin as a rock star, he brought a devlish charisma to the role (my companion, a veteran attendee of opera, remarked that this was the first Don Giovanni she had ever seen "who could get it." As to what "it" is, I'm too scandalized to say). It wouldn't have meant much if he couldn't sing; thankfully, he could, and did, in a deep, thick bass-baritone that soared confidently above the music.

In short order, Don Giovanni attempts to ravish young Donna Anna (Melinda Whittington, a powerhouse), kills her father in a duel, and vanishes. For some people, that might have marked rock bottom; for Don Giovanni, it's another episode in his long list of sexual conquests. But sleeping with so many women (1,003 in Spain alone) has its complications. Given that quantity, it's easy enough to flirt with someone without realizing you'd earlier broke her heart, as he does with Donna Elvira (Ashley Marie Robillard). She reminds him.

Later finding himself at a wedding party, he attempts to seduce the soon-to-be bride. Zerlina is initially skeptical, but soon falls for him. Faithful Opera Grand Rapids attendees will remember Rachel Mills as Papagena in theThe Magic Flute; here, she brings her customary comic timing, ability to inhabit a character, and lovely, clear voice to the role of a naive but loving young woman.

Maybe surprisingly given the thematic material, this is a very funny show. Several times, audience members burst into laughter. My seatmate mentioned that the contemporary clothing and dance moves brought the humor to the foreground. I think she's right. There's something inherently funny about a jean jacket over a wedding dress.

Events amp up with Wodehousian energy until Don Giovanni finds himself in a graveyard. A statue sits in perfect stillness: a warning, should he be wise enough to take it. Frighteningly, the statue moves, and speaks; undeterred, the libertine invites it to dine with him in the future. At that dinner, Don Giovanni will be given the chance to repent, but he refuses to take it, condemning himself to the kind of eternal flame that the Bangles never sang about.

All in all, the show was a triumph: well-staged, well-acted, and well-sung, a celebration and a delight.

As we rose, I asked my friend if she'd learned her lesson. "My lecherous ways are over," she said. "No, maybe the lesson is that all men are terrible." I don't know about that, though. The statue seemed like a good guy.

For more information, visit Don Giovanni - Opera Grand Rapids

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