Impressive cast breathes new life into FM Opera’s “Don Giovanni”
Take “Don Giovanni”, for example. The work of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart seems to be a classic since its first performance in 1787 and remains one of the most famous operas of all time thanks to its playful and dramatic music.
But has the time come for classical work? In today’s environment, the story of a nobleman who pursues, seduces and then rejects women is problematic in light of the #MeToo movement. What made audiences laugh over 200 years ago might make audiences cringe today.
Director Austin Regan found a solution in Fargo-Moorhead Opera’s staging of “Don Giovanni” which premiered Friday night at the Reinieke Concert Hall, North Dakota State University. Regan takes the work of the mansions of ancient Italy and moves the action to the offices of a modern tech company. Updates mainly work as the story becomes more relevant. We see the main character as a charismatic leader of Giovanni Corp., whose underlings adore him, nurturing his ego and insatiable lust.
Jesús Vicente Murillo (left) and Khary “KF Jaques” Laurent in “Don Giovanni” by FM Opera. Submissive / John Borge
In the title role, Khary “KF Jaques” Laurent delivers the charm and menace needed in his stage debut in Fargo. His rich baritone makes it easy to see how he might woo, but his physical presence is just as imposing. He uses his size to show his authority, but also towers over the other actors in a show of intimidation as powerful as his gaze.
Laurent doesn’t play Don Giovanni as a one-dimensional villain, which can frustrate some audience members. He said he really wanted the audience to hate him by the end of the show, but his performance is likable, even though the character is loathsome. He has fun with the character, using his long limbs in comedic movements as he leans in disguise or convinces his subordinates to dance.
Don Giovanni’s playful facade doesn’t fool those he tormented. While they might not all get the revenge they want, they each have moments to shine.
In the first few moments we see the shadows of Don Giovanni attacking Donna Anna. Played by Takesha Meshé Kizart, the character is never just a victim, but a force to be reckoned with as she cries out that she will find him after fighting him. After seeing that he killed her father, the Commendatore, Donna Anna becomes even more determined for justice. You must feel sorry for her serious lover Don Ottavio (Gabriel Hernandez), whose romantic tenor continues to be put on hold.
Takesha Meshé Kizart (left) and Gabriel Hernandez in “Don Giovanni” by FM Opera. Submissive / John Borge
The soprano wields a brilliant, crystal-clear voice that she seems to deliver effortlessly, making it as compelling to watch as it is to hear. Laurent may be headlining, but Kizart has eclipsed everyone on stage.
Laurent is in charge of bringing Kizart from Chicago where they shared the stage, so he deserves another round of applause just for that.
In her role as the rejected lover, Donna Elvira, Kara Covery delivers fiery intensity and touching vulnerability as she struggles with conflicting feelings for the Don.
Also falls under his spell, Zerlina, portrayed as an intern by Anna Hashizume. Although she is tempted by the Don, she shows her own ability to seduce when she tries to calm her jealous finance company, Masetto (Timothy Madden). It presents an awkward moment as Zerlina invites Masetto to beat her up, pull her hair out and tear her eyes out and she will always love him. Her performance keeps her from being too squeaky as she plays Zerlina as someone who may appear submissive, but actually in control.
Hashizume isn’t limited to opera as her biography lists other work on stage and on screen and her Friday performance shows an actress totally at ease on stage. Her performance ties her voice, body and facial expressions together like no other. When the Don sneaks his hand from her shoulder to her side, her eyes speak of the discomfort she feels.
Another great physical performance is that of Jesús Vicente Murillo, who delivers comedic relief as Don Giovanni’s tired assistant, Leoporello. When instructed by his master to pretend to be him in order to keep Donna Elvira away, Murillo embraces the task and bursts out laughing.
From left to right, Gabriel Hernandez, Kara Covey, Takesha Meshé Kizart, Timothy Madden, Jesús Vicente Murillo, Anna Hashizume and Khary “KF Jaques” Laurent in “Don Giovanni” by FM Opera. Submissive / John Borge
Yet the lack of a single physical presence on stage is the show’s biggest flaw. Lloyd Reshard Jr. plays the Commendatore, but is only on stage for his fatal fight with Don Giovanni. Her ghost comes looking for the murderer at the end of the show in the most dramatic and well-known scene. While traditionally his entry and exit are explosive, in the FM Opera version he appears on a screen overlooking the towering Don. It’s a clever connection to the high-tech setting, and as Reshard’s bass explodes off the stage, his on-screen face is out of sync and intentionally glitchy. What is supposed to be ghostly is just distracting as its image freezes and shatters, then gives way to the Don trapped in the computer, dragged into another kind of hell.
Set designer Ann Gumpper uses the screen to a much better effect earlier in the series as Leoporello shows off Donna Elvira the Don’s conquests in a social media “friend” list. FM Opera fans laughed when the scroll stopped by a photo of the company’s artistic director, David Hamilton, playing a Lady Edna witch in 2019’s “Hansel and Gretel”.
In her opera FM debut on the main stage, Regan displayed great skill and vision and an impressive willingness to try something new with a classic. While some changes don’t pay off, the overall production is superb.
The best thing the production has going for it is its impressive cast of relatively young artists, with six of the eight stars being former Gate City Bank artists. With artists as talented and diverse as this one and directors like Regan, the creative adaptations make problematic classics enjoyable for a new audience.
What: FM Opera’s “Don Giovanni”
When: 2 p.m. Sunday 31 October
Or: Reineke Concert Hall, North Dakota State University, Fargo
Info: Tickets range from $ 40 to $ 80; https://www.fmopera.org/don-giovanni