There aren't many better ways to warm up a snowy winter night than listening to Mozart. And with touring companies being as rare as they are these days, it was refreshing to hear the Mozart Opera Festival bring an evening of delight to McCarter Theatre last Tuesday night. The Mozart Opera Festival, founded in 2003, is the sister company of Teatro Lirico D'Europa, which was apparent from its shared orchestra and chorus, as well as many singers in the cast from the same region of Europe.
Don Giovanni is the timeless story of Don Juan, set by Mozart in 1787 as a dramma giocoso combining comedy, tragedy, and a thinly-veiled moral. Mozart's late operas lean toward the early 19th century practice of type-casting voice parts as types of characters, and the three sopranos in this production of Don Giovanni were as vocally different as the personalities they portrayed. The maternal Donna Elvira was performed by Hallie Neill, one of the two American women in the cast. It is unclear who put this cast together, but Donna Elvira was cast with a bit of a vocal edge. Ms. Neill's singing was very controlled, often to the point of losing the soaring Mozartean melodic lines and creating a few pitch issues in the second act.
Another edgy but energetic singer, Bulgarian soprano Veselina Vasileva, sang the soubrette role of Zerlina with appropriate flippancy. Both of these sopranos sang with voices that seemed to clamp a lid on the line and sparkle that is so characteristic of Mozart's operas. The one soprano whose voice soared through the melodies with seemingly no height restrictions was American Steffanie Pearce, singing the role of Donna Anna. Ms. Pearce's voice glided through the upper registers with effortless ease. She has made a career of playing tragic heroines, and her dramatic portrayal of Donna Anna was controlled and sympathetic.
The five primary male characters were also performed by singers of varied vocal personalities. Vytautas Juozapaitis, a Lithuanian baritone, portrayed the title role of Don Giovanni with suaveness, humor and a charming roguishness as he tried to dig himself out of one romantic predicament after another. His sidekick, Leporello, was sung by Stefano De Peppo, an Italian baritone whose singing may not have had the vocal stamina of his colleagues, but he was rhythmically precise.
Don Ottavio was sung by American tenor Don Bernardini with steadiness and solidity to match his romantic foil, Donna Anna. His second act signature aria, "Il mio tesoro," was sung very evenly and with grace. Although Masetto, sung by Hristo Sarafov, seemed much older than his fiancée Zerlina, the role was performed effectively. Viacheslav Pochapsky was the consummate dinner guest from the dead as the Commendatore.
The orchestra and chorus were comprised of the Sofia Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, and although seemingly very young, the members of the choral ensemble were well trained and stayed right with conductor J. Ernest Green. The orchestra's best moments were from the winds, with the strings having some rough spots from time to time. However, with Ivaylo Ivanov at the harpsichord, the orchestra provided very delicate pizzicato with harpsichord accompaniment to some of the later arias.
It takes a tremendous amount of work to send an opera on tour. The sets for this production were traditionally classic and cleverly designed to shift into different positions, and many effects were achieved with lighting. The Mozart Opera Festival lists as its mission "to provide a touring opera showcase for American singers," and although only three of the leads were American, the point is well taken the company not only gave performing opportunities to these up and coming singers, but also provided an invigorating dose of Mozart in the dead of winter.