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TV Review: Adaptation takes liberties with Mozart

Thursday, April 05, 2001

By Robert Croan, Post-Gazette Senior Editor

Mozart's "Don Giovanni" is generally acknowledged as the greatest opera ever written, and one aspect of its greatness is its openness to reinterpretation. From its second production in 1788 -- when the omission of the moralistic epilogue changed the emphasis from comedy to tragedy -- through a 1999 Salzburg staging that had the characters growing old on stage amid melting Dali-like clocks, every director has had his way with this masterpiece. The work has been violated at least as many times as the Don's women.

"Don Giovanni Unmasked"

When: Tomorrow at 10 p.m. on WQED/WQEX.


Mozart's magnificent score, which illuminates every line in Lorenzo Da Ponte's ingenious libretto, has often been lost in the shuffle. To a degree, that happens in "Don Giovanni Unmasked," Barbara Willis Sweete's Canadian-based adaptation airing tomorrow at 10 p.m. on PBS's "Great Performances." Da Ponte presented the Don Juan on the last day of his life, with his last three women. Sweete, trimming Mozart's three hours of music down to 57 minutes, focuses on the relationship between the Don and his servant and doppelganger, Leporello.

The setting is a 1930s Hollywood screening room, in which Leporello is showing his black-and-white film-within-a-film to the real-life cast (who appear in living color). The secret is that Leporello and the Don have become the same person -- actually not too much of a secret, in light of the fact that drop-dead-handsome Russian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky plays both roles. His Leporello stands mostly outside the film, simultaneously telling the story and participating in it, but when servant and master exchange clothes to accomplish a deception that would allow the Don to make still one more seduction, the identities of the two men become irrevocably entangled.

Sweete, however, throws out babies with the bath water. The opera's women Nos. 1 and 2 (haughty Donna Anna and passionate Donna Elvira) get substantial representation, but Woman No. 3 -- the peasant girl Zerlina -- is reduced to walk-on status. Accordingly, some of the opera's musical highlights -- notably the seduction duet, "La ci darem la mano," and the arias for Zerlina and Don Ottavio -- are scrapped.

Nonetheless, this film is worth watching, if for no other reason than the virtuoso performance of Hvorostovsky, who must be the definitive Don Giovanni of this generation. Hvorostovsky not only plays both characters to the hilt -- he also sings their music splendidly, differentiating the color of his sound for each.

The remainder of the musical element, rendered by Canadian Opera Company personnel conducted by Richard Bradshaw, is never less than competent. Special mention must go to Barbara Dunn Prosser -- a super-expressive Elvira, and the film's only protagonist who does not sing her own music (she lip-syncs to the soprano of Liesel Fedkenheuer).

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