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BERKSHIRE OPERA FESTIVAL

Berkshire Opera Festival's 'Don Giovanni' updates the opera for modern expectations while retaining the comedy

BOF-BJM-ET-AC-JL-DG-rehearsal credit Andrea Yu.jpeg

Members of the cast of "Don Giovanni" rehearse a scene from the opera.

GREAT BARRINGTON — Don Giovanni, antihero of Mozart’s eponymous 18th century operatic masterpiece, is a man with insatiable appetites — for women, for corporeal pleasures, and, in Berkshire Opera Festival’s new production at the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center, for the escape offered by drinking and drugs.

In modern day terms, he is a sexual predator who racks up conquests and kills a man by duel without remorse.

And, just like in BOF’s earlier production of “Rigoletto," says Jonathon Loy, stage director and BOF co-founder, the present day demands such misogynistic men confront their crimes.

Berkshire Opera Festival co-founders conductor Brian Garman and Loy helm “Don Giovanni” for three fully-staged performances on Aug 20, 23 and 26, leading a cast of 8 principal singers, 12 choristers and 2 dancers, accompanied by a 30-piece orchestra in a ground-floor pit.

Bass-baritone André Courville plays licentious nobleman Don Giovanni, with French-American bass Christian Zaremba as his obsequious servant Leporello. Soprano Laura Wilde is Donna Anna, betrothed to Don Ottavio, played by British-American tenor Joshua Blue. Il Commendatore, her father, is sung by 45-year Metropolitan Opera veteran, bass-baritone John Cheek. Mezzo-soprano Megan Moore is Donna Elvira, forsaken by Giovanni; and soprano Natalia Santaliz and baritone Brian James Myer play peasant couple Zerlina and Masetto.

Written in the operatic style of “dramma giocoso” — a comic drama — and based on the Spanish “Don Juan” story, amidst a slew of seductions, wealthy libertine Giovanni is beset by those he has wronged seeking revenge. A duel victim returns to haunt him, quite literally, as he heads inexorably towards his downfall.

“In the year 2022, what do you do with Giovanni that does not make excuses for him?” asked Loy by phone. “His behavior is quite frankly disgusting. I wanted to take a deep dive into this guy that creates this world that takes people down with him.”

Loy uses a male dancer to portray Giovanni’s id. Driven solely by food and sex, “it is checked normally by the superego, but Giovanni does not have that balance. So he is tortured by himself and self-medicates with pills and alcohol and cocaine. We see this battle from the very first note of the Overture.”

With all this drama, we can’t forget this is also a comedy, cautioned Loy. “As dark as everything is, which is very serious subject matter, we need a lot of comedy in a piece like this. And Mozart and Da Ponte wrote it that way. Leporello is usually the one causing most of that.”

This is BOF’s sixth main stage production since its 2016 debut. The company now presents two operas a year, one classic and one contemporary. Loy directs each year’s main stage production.

“I’m very happy that Brian does the casting,” he said, “this is what he does for a living. I’ve never been disappointed by the singers that appear on our stage.

“They’re all big-voiced singing actors, all in their prime. This piece is really difficult from a director’s point of view, but the reward is spectacularly beautiful music.”

Many of the singers are former colleagues from opera companies around the country and from The Met, where Loy is staff stage director.

This is only the second time Loy has directed “Don Giovanni” in his long career. “It was great to come back at it with a completely different lens, which really affects what you decide to do,” he said. “Even though this is Italian opera, a style in which I’m very accustomed, dramaturgically it presents many challenges, and we’re knocking them out as we go along.”

“These are complex characters, it would be a mistake not to explore that,” Loy added. “People do terrible things because they’re flawed. I’m making Giovanni more human, but just because someone has a sickness, it doesn’t excuse behavior.”

Drawn to playing despicable roles, as Giovanni bass-baritone Courville inhabits the unrepentant libertine with studied expertise.

“I love playing villains, it’s much more interesting from an acting perspective,” the Louisiana native said by phone from his Berkshire retreat. “You can be charming in a manipulative way and you can be evil. One of my favorites is the Devil Mephistopheles in 'Faust.'”

This isn’t a traditional concept for “Don Giovanni,” Courville noted. “Jonathon shows his interior struggle with drug abuse and mental illness. It’s a little more terrifying, to be honest, because it’s a real person. Just being evil is one-dimensional.”

Raised in Cecilia, a small town near Lafayette, La., between roles he returns to his houseboat in the swamp on the Atchafalaya Basin — the largest wetlands in the U.S., he noted — and cooks up a pot of gumbo.

“I love food, I love to eat, I’m a pretty big Cajun cook,” he said. For gumbo, use a roux or okra, he cautions, never both.

“I’d go crazy in a big city,” he explained. “Traveling is so hectic and stressful, you’re always around people and noise. I can go home and go out into the Basin and I don’t hear anything, birds chirping maybe, a frog croaking, that’s about it. And it calms my spirit.'

“I always had an obsession, a passion about music, and classical music especially,” he added. Inspired to become an opera singer after seeing a touring production of “Lucia di Lammermoor” at age 16, he didn't receive much encouragement initially.

“It takes the bass voice a very long time to mature, at about 35 or 40 years old,” he explained.

He was drawn to Italian opera. “I’ve always loved Bel Canto music, it chose me, it was a natural fit. I never looked anywhere else.”

Now 10 years into his professional career, Courville has performed on concert and opera stages across the U.S. and Europe.

As Don Giovanni, the self-proclaimed "Bayou Boy" makes his Berkshire Opera Festival and role debut.

"It’s one of my dream roles, I’ve been waiting my whole life to do it. And there are very few places that really collaborate in such a deep way with singers,” he said.

At BOF, he heads a cast equipped with the talent and experience the company has consistently delivered.

“I’m very excited about this show, and I think everybody else should be too,” he said. “We’re a younger group, but there’s nothing missing. These people really can sing, and they know exactly what they’re doing. I’m very impressed.”

ONSTAGE

What: “Don Giovanni” Music by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Libretto by Lorenzo Da Ponte. Sung in Italian with English titles.

Who: Berkshire Opera Festival

Where: Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center, 14 Castle St., Great Barrington

Run time: 3 hours 10 minutes 

When: 1 p.m., Saturday, Aug. 20; 7:30 p.m. Aug. 23 and 26 

Tickets: $20 - $120

Tickets can be purchased through the Mahaiwe box office at 413-528-0100 or mahaiwe.org

More information: berkshireoperafestival.org

COVID protocol: Masks required.

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