Ready? Set? No! Music, not the set, carries 'Don Giovanni'

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Cathryn Wilkinson

One expects Don Giovanni, Mozart's 1787 opera of a womanizer undone, to end with the destruction of the freewheeling "libertine." But American Opera Group's new production, under the direction of R. Paul Williams, almost began that way too.

As the orchestra tuned up, the surtitle screen fell calamitously into the wing, and Williams greeted the small gathering of opera aficionados with a quick welcome and a fitting apology. Then, gesturing to an imposing structure of rustic two-by-fours on stage, he let on that the set-builders for the show had, well, never showed.

And so, as they say in this business, the show had to go on with a full orchestra, ably led by J. David Stech, and a superb, full-voiced cast, of which Williams was justifiably proud.

If one takes the position, as many did in Mozart's day, that the music is what an opera is all about, then this production hits the mark.

Music there is aplenty, and it's very good. The orchestra was at ease with the demands of Mozart's score and even faithful to the point of including the scintillating sound of a live mandolin for the Don's serenade, "Deh vieni alla finestra," beneath Elvira's window. Pacing in the accompanied recitatives was especially clean.

Baritone Teppei Kono, a brilliant Don with a strong and vibrant sound throughout his entire register, was joined by a cast of equally rich, well-trained voices across the board. No weak links or falling lines here. Rebecca Davis sang Donna Elvira with venom and vitriolic rage, her voice as sharp as a sword. Both she and bass Oliver Neal Medina as the gullible, lovable and laughable Leporello distinguished themselves with an exceptional knack for acting.

Given the constraints of the Arts Center stage-the actors were limited to a narrow swath of performing space and cumbersome stage access up a few stairs-they negotiated it all quite artfully. With minimal lighting and simple white tops/dark bottoms for supporting costumes, the music rightly became the central focus.

The dedication of this cast exceeded even their top-tier talent. At one point, part of a baseboard on the rough-hewn set fell with a clatter that did nothing to interrupt the concentration or the beautiful music. Unbeknownst to them, the audience was distracted with numerous technical difficulties related to the English surtitles, and yet the effusive acting and convincing singing (in poetic Italian) still brought out the nuances of Lorenzo da Ponte's clever libretto.

Don Giovanni runs again May 18 at 7:30 p.m. and May 20 at 5 p.m. at the Oak Park Arts Center, 200 N. Oak Park Ave. If you go, be advised: Read a synopsis and the roles in advance as you will not find them in the program. There is an on-stage murder, an assault, and an accounting of attempted rape that might shake weaker temperaments. In spite of the crimes and punishment to follow, not to mention the minimalist set, the comic telling of this story, which is captured with terrific timing, makes for a great evening's entertainment.

You would expect some growing pains with fully staged opera in Oak Park, but even so, audiences can expect to be won over by Mozart's enduring drama. I can't tell you what to expect when tenor Aaron Stegemöller (Masetto) finishes his double duty as the set carpenter, but none of it matters-the music's the thing.

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