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Impressive cast gives new life to FM Opera's 'Don Giovanni'

Fargo native director, Austin Regan, also shines with local mainstage debut

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Takesha Meshé Kizart, Kara Covey and Jesús Vicente Murillo before a projected image of Khary “K.F. Jaques” Laurent in FM Opera's "Don Giovanni." Submitted / John Borge

Today’s opera companies face a similar issue. The best known works are often hundreds of years old, written by White European men for the upper classes of the day and not always relatable for modern audiences.

Take “Don Giovanni,” for example. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s work has seemingly been a classic since it was first performed in 1787 and remains one of the most celebrated operas of all time thanks to its playful and dramatic music.

But could time be up for the classic work? In today’s environment, the tale of a nobleman who pursues, seduces and then discards women is problematic in light of the #MeToo movement. What may have made an audience laugh over 200 years ago could make today’s audience cringe.

Director Austin Regan found a solution in Fargo-Moorhead Opera’s staging of “Don Giovanni” that opened Friday night at Reinieke Concert Hall, North Dakota State University. Regan takes the work from the mansions of ancient Italy and moves the action to the offices of a modern tech company. The updates mostly work as the story becomes more relatable. We see the title character as a charismatic leader of Giovanni Corp., whose underlings adore him, feeding his ego and his insatiable lust.

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Jesús Vicente Murillo (left) and Khary “K.F. Jaques” Laurent in FM Opera's "Don Giovanni." Submitted / John Borge

In the title role, Khary “K.F. Jaques” Laurent delivers the necessary charm and menace in his Fargo stage debut. His rich baritone makes it easy to see how he could woo, but his physical presence is just as commanding. He uses his height to show his authority, but also looms over other actors in a show of intimidation as forceful as his glare.

Laurent doesn’t play Don Giovanni as a one-dimensional villain, which may frustrate some audience members. He’s said he really wants the audience to hate him by the end of the show , but his performance is likable, even if the character is detestable. He has fun with the character, using his long limbs in comic movements as he hunches over in disguise or convinces his subordinates to dance.

Don Giovanni’s fun façade doesn’t fool those he’s tormented. While they may not all get the vengeance they want, they each get moments to shine.

In the opening moments we see shadows of Don Giovanni assault of Donna Anna. Played by Takesha Meshé Kizart, the character is never just a victim, but a force to be reckoned with as she yells that she will find him after fighting him off. After seeing that he killed her father, the Commendatore, Donna Anna becomes even more determined for justice. You have to feel sorry for her earnest lover Don Ottavio ( Gabriel Hernandez ), whose romantic tenor keeps getting put on hold.

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Takesha Meshé Kizart (left) and Gabriel Hernandez in FM Opera's "Don Giovanni." Submitted / John Borge

The soprano wields a bright, crystalline voice that she seems to deliver effortlessly, making her as compelling to watch as she is to hear. Laurent may get top billing but Kizart outshined everyone on the stage.

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Laurent is responsible for bringing Kizart from Chicago where they have shared the stage, so he deserves another round of applause just for that.

In her role as the spurned lover, Donna Elvira, Kara Covery delivers a fiery intensity and touching vulnerability as she struggles with conflicted feelings for the Don.

Also falling under his spell is Zerlina, depicted as an intern by Anna Hashizume . Though she is tempted by the Don, she shows her own ability to seduce when she tries to calm her jealous finance, Masetto ( Timothy Madden ). This presents an awkward moment as Zerlina invites Masetto to beat her, pull her hair and pull out her eyes and she'll still love him. Her performance keeps it from being too cringe-inducing as she plays Zerlina as someone who may seem subservient, but actually is in control.

Hashizume isn’t limited to opera as her bio lists other stage and screen work and her performance Friday shows an actress totally comfortable on the stage. Her performance ties her voice, body and facial expressions together unlike any of the others. When the Don sneakily slides his hand from her shoulder down her side, her eyes speak of the discomfort she feels.

Another great physical performance is that of Jesús Vicente Murillo , who delivers the comic relief as Don Giovanni’s weary aide, Leoporello. When charged by his master to impersonate him in order to lead Donna Elvira away, Murillo embraces the task and delivers laughs.

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From left, Gabriel Hernandez, Kara Covey, Takesha Meshé Kizart, Timothy Madden, Jesús Vicente Murillo, Anna Hashizume and Khary “K.F. Jaques” Laurent in FM Opera's "Don Giovanni." Submitted / John Borge

Still, the lack of one physical presence on stage is the show’s greatest shortcoming. Lloyd Reshard Jr. plays the Commendatore, but is only on stage for his fatal fight with Don Giovanni. His ghost comes for the murderer at the end of the show in the most dramatic and best known scene. While traditionally his entrance and exits are explosive, in the FM Opera’s version he appears on a screen looming over the imposing Don. It’s a clever tie-in to the high-tech setting, and while Reshard’s bass booms offstage, his visage on the screen is out of synch and intentionally glitchy. What is intended to be ghostly is just distracting as his image freezes and breaks, then gives way to the Don trapped in the computer, dragged into another kind of hell.

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Set designer Ann Gumpper uses the screen to far better effect earlier in the show as Leoporello shows Donna Elvira the Don’s conquests in a social media “friends” list. FM Opera fans got a laugh when the scrolling stops at a picture of the company’s artistic director, David Hamilton, playing a Dame Edna-like Witch in 2019’s “Hansel and Gretel.”

In his mainstage FM Opera debut, Regan shows great skill and vision and an impressive willingness to try something new with a classic. While some changes may not pay off, the overall production is superb.

The best thing the production has going for it is its impressive cast of relatively young performers, with six of the eight stars being former Gate City Bank Artists. With artists as talented and diverse as this and directors like Regan, creative adaptations make problematic classics enjoyable for new audiences.

What: FM Opera’s “Don Giovanni”

When: 2 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 31

Where: Reineke Concert Hall, North Dakota State University, Fargo

Info: Tickets range from $40 to $80; https://www.fmopera.org/don-giovanni

Related Topics: THEATER
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