Kentucky Opera’s ‘Don Giovanni’ takes (crime) novel approach

February, 08, 2013
Written By Elizabeth Kramer
The Courier Journal

The story in Mozart’s opera “Don Giovanni” has always posed a challenge for Kristine McIntyre, who directs the Kentucky Opera’s production set to open Friday.

“It’s a very morally ambiguous universe that’s topsy turvy right from the beginning,” she said after a rehearsal last week. “You’re never quite sure who’s telling the truth or who is the good character and who’s the bad character.”

The opera centers on the seductive Giovanni, who is a sexual predator of sorts. He works his charm to prey on not only sophisticated women but also naive young women. At the opera’s onset, his exploitation of the young Donna Anna leads to a fight that ends in her father’s death.

From there, the plot thickens as Donna Elvira, a woman he seduced long ago, turns up seeking revenge. There’s also a young couple and their friends celebrating their wedding who arrive at Giovanni’s place. This presents another possible conquest for the Don. In the end, Giovanni gets his due.

McIntyre described Giovanni as an antihero who needs to gain the audience’s sympathies at some point for the drama to take hold.

The key to making that work: fashioning a production that emulates the tone and style of film noir, those chic films from the 1940s and 1950s that explored dark stories of crime and deceit. Among the films are “Out of the Past” from 1947 with Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer, Billy Wilder’s “Double Indemnity” with Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck and “The Third Man” with Orson Welles.

Film noir was spawned by the politics and culture of the time — on the heels of World War II and at the dawn of the Cold War, which generated its own stories of espionage and betrayals.

“It’s a period of time that’s interesting because there was so much tension underneath everything that looked so pretty on the surface,” McIntyre said.

But the director admitted that she is also in love with the design of the time.

“The women’s clothes are stunning. I think the men look great in overcoats and snap brim fedoras. It’s just true,” she said.

In planning meetings last spring, McIntyre took her idea to the production’s set designer, Eric Allgeier, and costume designer, Holly Jenkins-Evans. That was when they made a strategic decision about the look of the opera.

“It had to seem like a black-and-white film, and we had to make the brave choice that even the costumes were going to be in this black-and-white world,” McIntyre said.

The director conceded that there will be some hints of color: red lipstick, pink champagne and Giovanni’s overcoat in a deep midnight blue.

The designers said they welcomed this challenge.

“My first reaction was a big grin came across my face,” Allgeier said. “I love any time we can get away from the norms and the duty of period designs.”

His set, which incorporates an art deco style, includes street lamps, of course, and other pieces that help cast shadows on the stage as the story unfolds.

Jenkins-Evans, a freelance designer who has worked for Actors Theatre of Louisville and last designed costumes for the Kentucky Opera production of “Pirates of Penzance,” said her initial conversations with McIntyre addressed giving the costumes pattern and texture — some stripes here and a herringbone there — so that the look of the production doesn’t appear flat.

Jenkins-Evans said she found inspiration from movie stills and Hollywood portraits from the era as well as in vintage clothing shops. Jenkins-Evans, who is also a vintage clothing dealer and custom designer, said she started shopping for costume pieces in August and combed through stores wherever she traveled.

“If we were in Ohio, I would stop at someplace interesting and look around. I got things in Massachusetts, Maine and Pennsylvania,” she said.

Jenkins-Evans called McIntyre a strong, visually oriented director.

“She really has thought out this whole concept,” she added.

According to Kentucky Opera general director David Roth, the company also plans to rent out the sets and costumes to other opera companies, which can help boost Kentucky Opera’s reputation and generate income.

Meanwhile, McIntyre confessed that because of this production and others this year she’s spent a lot of time exploring many mid-century milieus. She’s directing Benjamin Britten’s “Peter Grimes,” which is set in postwar Britain, for the Des Moines Metro Opera, and a production of the operetta “Die Fledermaus” (The Bat) by Johann Strauss II, which she is setting in the 1920s. Flappers and champagne glasses will figure in the latter, she said.

“This particular year, it’s great,” she said. “I’m in my own little 20th-century opera fantasy.”