On Saturday evening, Santa Fe Opera’s audience arrived to find the back of the stage opened to a scene so lovely that even the liveried servants of Don Giovanni assembled to gaze at the sun setting over the western landscape. It would have been a great way to begin the company’s season the night before, when Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West, actually set in the American West, trotted in to town; but it wasn’t less apt for the magnificent dramma giocoso of Wolfgang Amadè Mozart and Lorenzo Da Ponte, since its Spanish location might not look so very different from our own.

Once the opera started, it became clear that this production was not about realistic settings. The principal stage object rises from below decks during the overture: a gigantic human skull taking form out of an inchoate mass. It is never made explicit what it is meant to refer to, but probably it signifies mortality itself. It is there throughout the opera, receding only when the vaunted libertine is finally dragged down to Hell. Its rugged contours are enlivened by projected images that usually suggest a general milieu (shrubbery, branches) but sometimes introduce more surprising specters into this mythic realm, like a Madonna or a red-robed Dante.

Apart from that, there is not much to Riccardo Hernandez’s set, but it is enough. All the action revolves around this sculpture or even on it — one of its ledges serves for Donna Elvira’s balcony scene in Act 2 — although lamps and other bits of furniture magically materialize through unobtrusive stagecraft to set scenes within Don Giovanni’s palace, their arrangement enhanced by Marcus Doshi’s subtle lighting design. Still, such transient touches are dwarfed by the ever-present hulk, which calls to mind perhaps a sphinx, perhaps a chess-piece.

Indeed, the characters in Don Giovanni, as in all of the Mozart-Da Ponte operas, have something of the chess-piece about them. In this carefully plotted production, director Ron Daniels, making his house debut, has helped the performers craft clear images of who they embody and then stick unswervingly to their characterizations. This seems a right-headed approach. In Don Giovanni, situations develop as the title figure advances through the bedrooms of Europe, but characters do not. The fact that they all come in contact with each other in various combinations and circumstances leaves no impact on their personalities. Everybody is pretty much the same at the opera’s end as they are at its beginning, except for the murdered Commendatore and Hell-bound Giovanni — and Giovanni is Hell-bound precisely because he refuses to change. The Commendatore’s daughter, Donna Anna, and her fiancé, Don Ottavio, are still locked in a relationship marked by formality rather than passion. Zerlina and Masetto, the peasant couple, are still keeping it together even though she’s a flirt. Don Giovanni’s decease means Donna Elvira will never possess him, but rather than change her attitude and move bravely through life, she retreats to a convent where she can replay past fantasies. Giovanni’s servant, Leporello, is also locked in the cycle of his life, and he accepts with a shrug that he’ll simply have to find a new master. Daniels keeps the characterizations precise and simple, and the cast, dressed in luxuriant late-Renaissance costumes by Emily Rebholz, responds with performances that are dramatically credible and true to the nature of the piece.

Daniel Okulitch is a splendid Don Giovanni, handsome of visage and voice, at once cocky and suave, seductive and dangerous. Much of his music is in recitatives, usually in exchanges with other characters, rather than in arias, which would allow for reflection; he is a man of action rather than circumspection. He is allotted only two arias, the so-called Champagne aria “Fin ch’han dal vino,” and the serenade “Deh vieni alla finestra,” which he sings to charm Elvira’s maid. Neither has much import in the plot, and they are usually tossed off as blithe bagatelles. Both were memorable here. The former, part of a scene sung in and out of a bathtub, afforded Okulitch a “barihunk” moment, with servants providing a modicum of discretion through strategically suspended towels. “Deh vieni,” with its adorable mandolin obbligato, became a highlight of the evening as Okulitch caressed its phrases with easy elegance, as if each reminded him of another special memory in his catalog of sweet conquests. As it unrolled, bevies of night-gowned damsels emerged from the wings, attracted like moths to a flame. His musical standards were of the highest order, his clear and sonorous baritone held aloft on a foundation of precise intonation, distinct articulation, and meticulous rhythmic definition. His phrasing followed through with concentration to the end of every line. Countless gifted Giovannis have trod the boards through the years, but while Okulitch was singing, one thought of none but him.

The rest of the cast also afforded abundant delights. As Leporello, robust baritone Kyle Ketelsen proved a firm-footed foil to his master to the bitter end, torn between duty and exasperation, rendering his comic turns with appealing understatement. Soprano Leah Crocetto, as Donna Anna, boasts an ample voice with rich, ringing tone. The highpoint of her performance was her recounting to Don Ottavio how Giovanni crept into her bedroom to force himself on her — which, in this production, we know to be a lie, since we saw at the outset that she was reluctant to stop embracing her presumed attacker. Her intensity continued unabated through her nuanced, expressive singing in the grandiloquent aria “Or sai chi l’onore.”

Tenor Edgaras Montvidas infused dignity into Don Ottavio, her fiancé. His voice was a bit closed and dry-timbred at first (though it grew richer as the evening progressed), and it is marked by a quick vibrato, but he is a Mozart tenor to reckon with. This being an amalgam of the two early versions of Mozart’s score, the evening included both of his possible arias: “Il mio tesoro,” used in the first Prague performances, and “Dalla sua pace,” which replaced it in Vienna. The phrases of “Dalla sua pace” underwent considerable rhythmic stretching, but the result was undeniably affecting; and “Il mio tesoro” benefited from gently purling scales.

Soprano Keri Alkema, as Donna Elvira, sang with a fluttering quality that might bear attention in the coaching studio, and she seemed pushed to her limits in “Mi tradì.” She merits accolades for being among the several singers (along with Okulitch and Montvidas) who made the effort to enrich their lines through period-appropriate ornamentation. Rhian Lois proved a rather reedy soubrette as Zerlina; baritone Jarett Ott (a company apprentice) was solid, steady, and inherently sweet as Masetto; and bass Soloman Howard was sonorous and stentorian as the Commendatore.

John Nelson took a rather conservative stance in his conducting, pacing things much as they were done 40 years ago, before the historical-performance movement started speeding things up in mainstream opera. That’s not cause for complaint, and it will shake no cages. The firm musical standards and dramatic presentation ensure that interest never flags during this long evening, which (including intermission) runs nearly three and a half hours. Even operagoers who have already seen a lifetime’s worth of Don Giovannis are advised not to miss this one.

Contact James M. Keller at jkeller@sfnewmexican.com.

Correction

An earlier version of this review erroneously referred to Donna Elvira’s aria as “Non mi dir”; it should have referenced the aria "Mi tradì."

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