Putting the Oh! in Opera – Don Giovanni at The Barnes at Wolf Trap

The Thinker by Rodin

Many years back I ruminated on the differences between musicals and operas. I tend to see a lot more musicals than operas. Musicals tend to be easier to find and although pricey, less pricey than an opera. On rare occasion we will see an opera, but never before on so unique a stage as The Barns at Wolf Trap, in Vienna, Virginia. Wolf Trap is an oddity: a national park that is basically an arts venue. Most of the business goes on in the huge open-air Filene Center, but there is also a smaller and air conditioned venue called The Barns where we saw Mozart’s Don Giovanni last night. This was principally because my daughter had gotten into the opera and wanted to see it.

Choosing to The Barns instead of whatever was going on at the Filene Center was a smart choice. The heat wave across the nation is hardly news. It was 99 degrees when we arrived at The Barns, peculiarly situated in a hard to get to toney neighborhood in Vienna. The Barns is a barn, sort of. At least the interior was full of rough-cut timbers. I knew the stage was relatively small, but it was smaller than I expected. The stage is not inset so you can look down, which means arguably the best seating is on the balcony.

Don Giovanni was first performed in 1787 in Prague. The Wolf Trap Opera Company is a very small opera company that performs to small crowds. There could not have been more than three hundred of us attending this performance. Whereas in 1787 little was available in the way of special effects, the company chose to update the plot and place it to 2014. This made for an odd but still satisfying performance that was incongruous in the present. For example, there were lyrics from Zerlina (Andrea Carroll) that really don’t translate in 2014 very well. To assure her fiancé Masetto (Aaron Sorensen) that is sorry that Don Giovanni tried to seduce her, she says he should beat her and rip out her heart, and she would not object! Technology itself was a character in this staging. Specifically Leporello (Craig Irvin), Don Giovanni’s (Ryan Kuster) assistant charged with chronicling all his adventures seducing women, has a tablet computer that he uses to keep track of his two thousand plus conquests. There was other integration of technology, principally allowing for fun dynamic backgrounds, including a humorous graveyard scene at the climax when the statue on the grave of the Commendatore actually does wink and turn its head. The technology actually improved the opera, which, frankly, is not one of Mozart’s best works.

This opera company is hardly the Metropolitan Opera, but for a small company modestly funded and forced to perform on a small stage, they did a great job. I felt for the orchestra, jammed into a tiny pit in front of the stage. It must be a fire code or safety violation to cram them in like that. At least their union should complain. The performers were almost universally young, under thirty looking people, with great operatic voices that seemed too good for the rough-hewn walls of The Barns.

The story, in case you are not familiar with it, is that Don Giovanni, a Spanish nobleman who is channeling the Don Juan archetype, is enamored with seducing and bedding as many women as possible, then unceremoniously dumping them. For this endeavor he needs Leporello as a full time assistant to help with logistics and chronicle his adventures. Leporello is sick and tired of being his assistant, particularly when he never gets a chance to score himself. Don Giovanni is also something of a hot-tempered nobleman, and decides to murder The Commendatore after he angrily confronts him for bedding his daughter Donna Anna (Marcy Stonikas). Pretty much the rest of the opera chronicles Don Giovanni’s sad decline as his sins catch up with him. And yet this is not a tragedy. It is really a comedy, and the opera company went out of their way to make it funny, not to mention to take some liberal licenses with the material. Toward the end of the opera, Don Giovanni takes two whores to bed and we get a lesbian scene on stage while he performs an aria. Somehow I don’t think this was done when staged in 1787, but even so the lyrics are pretty racy, or at least suggestive at times. They weren’t entirely prudes in 1787.

Don Giovanni is one of Mozart’s better known operas, but having watched it in its entirety, I can say that although rife with great singing and lovely arias, the plot is a piffle, and it is full of the sorts of devices that make operas annoying for many ordinary folk. After all, it’s important to pad out the material to three hours so the audience knows it got its money’s worth. So you get the same lyrics stated and restated again and again. Thank goodness I did not have to know Italian and subtitles were provided. They did not have to change the subtitles very often. The result is an opera that is not terribly engaging, but made fun at times and more than endurable thanks to the cast and orchestra who were obviously having great fun with the material.

Sadly, we attended the last performance, and two performances were apparently canceled due to the power outages we experienced as a result of severe thunderstorms and our heat wave. I hope to enjoy both The Barns and this opera company again, as the ticket prices were reasonable ($60 each), we had a lot of fun, and did not have to drive very far. I’m hoping the next time we go we will see an opera with more meat on it than this one. Fortunately, the music and performance was so good this serious deficiency was easy to overlook.

One thought on “Putting the Oh! in Opera – Don Giovanni at The Barnes at Wolf Trap

  1. Aah, this sounds wonderful. Tho’ I suppose more for you than for the performers with, as you mentioned, the heat wave we’re enduring… loosely stated.

    I have never been to an opera. I would love to, but the opportunity has never presented itself to me. While attending high school we did a number of musicals & operettas I performed in. We did The Pirates of Penzance & Madame Butterfly. I would also have been in H.M.S. Pinafore but for a lengthy bout with laryngitis. Those little adventures did give me a taste for more but sadly it never went beyond that.

    Thank you once again for another observation & expert piece of your life for us to share.

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