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Opera Review: Ravinia’s stylish staging underscores timeless beauty of Mozart operas

James Conlon
Chicago Sun Times

By Dorothy Andries  

The music of Mozart never grows old, whether it is the fierce but sometimes funny drama “Don Giovanni” when the legendary womanizer actually goes to hell before our very eyes, or the hilarious comedy “The Marriage of Figaro,” in which numerous obstacles pop up to sabotage the wedding of Figaro and his darling Susanna. The composer’s string of endless, luscious arias, duets and ensembles perfectly convey the vices and virtues of human nature.

In the Martin Theatre at the Ravinia Festival Thursday Aug. 14 and Friday Aug. 15 music director James Conlon conducted members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus in those two operas, with librettos by poet Lorenzo Da Ponte. The shows repeated Aug. 16 and 17.

“Don Giovanni” had a stylish cast, with British baritone Christopher Maltman in the title role. His cavalier manner and cat-like stride seemed to depict a man more mischievous than malevolent, but his libertine ways doomed him and his murder of a man defending the honor of his daughter sealed his fate. American soprano Tamara Wilson was a strong Donna Anna and her father, the Commendatore, was sung by Icelandic bass Kristinn Sigmundsson, a mountain of a man with a voice to match. His call to Don Giovanni at the opera’s conclusion was chilling.

Standout among the scorned was glorious Polish soprano Aga Mikolaj, who portrayed Donna Elvira as so desperate that the frequent suggestion by opera scholars that the character might be pregnant seemed credible.

Serbian baritone David Bizic as Giovanni’s servant Leporello stole every scene he was in, and his list of master’s numerous conquests was amusing, if alarming. Peasant couple Zerlina and Masetto were also the source of considerable merriment. American soprano Ailyn Perez was a pretty, vivacious Zerlina, who is wooed by Giovanni in the charming duet “La ci darem la mano.” Her aria of repentance “Batti, batti o bel Masetto” was delivered delightfully. The thankless role of Masetto fell to American tenor Jonathan Michie.

The part of Don Ottavio, Donna Anna’s fiance, might have faded into the woodwork, save for the beautiful warm voice of Albanian tenor Saimir Pirgu.

The beloved comedy “The Marriage of Figaro” also had splendid singers. John Relyea, an American bass baritone, was a commanding figure in vocal power and presence, scoring his arias with zest and skill. His Susanna was the attractive American soprano Lisette Oropesa, who deftly captured the sparkle and intelligence of that lovely character. Oropeso is graceful beyond telling, moving like a dancer, shining in every scene. Countess Almaviva has the most beautiful arias in the opera, including the heart-rending “Dove sono,” which Finnish soprano Soile Isokoski sang with distinction. Her faithless count was sung by French baritone Stephane Degout.

Among comic characters in any opera, nobody beats the adolescent lad Cherubino, who is besotted with the Countess, but also gets a crush on every woman he sees. American mezzo Renee Rapier had that trouser role, and her/his bemused smile and twinkling eyes were among the highlights of the comedy. Her aria “Voi che sapate” was a triumph.

Additional antics were afoot when Marcellina, sung with distinction by Scottish soprano Marie McLaughlin, tries to claim Figaro as her own, and the Canadian soprano Simone Osborne as Barbarina tells amorous tales about the count.

These Mozart operas feature recitatives. Harpsichord accompanist in “Giovanni” was Miah Im, director was David Lefkowich. In”Figaro” Audrey Saint-Gil was accompanist and Harry Silverstein directed.

This must be said: Ravinia audiences adore James Conlon, as evidenced by the thunderous applause every time he comes on stage. He had two different groups of CSO players for the two operas. These stellar musicians gave us beautifully realized performances of Mozart’s timeless music, which never, never grows old.