Eric Owens dazzles in Philly Orchestra’s ‘Don Giovanni’


Concert operas – music only, no sets, no costumes – were the highlights of the Riccardo Muti era (1980-1992); fascinating cliffhangers for Wolfgang Sawallisch (1993-2003) due to canceled singers and blizzards; but promised a happy medium under the direction of principal guest conductor Nathalie Stutzmann during the Philadelphia Orchestra concert Friday afternoon at Verizon Hall.

With most of the orchestra’s choral programs changing this season due to COVID considerations, the Mozart Requiem was dropped and replaced by seven chorusless excerpts from Don Giovanni, which gets many votes for the greatest opera of all time. As the Requiemthe opera shows Mozart peering into a bleak future of dealing with transgressions – easily conveyed by Stutzmann’s thunderous treatment of the overture.

And from there? Besides the personality, humor and solid singing of Philadelphia’s Eric Owens as Don Giovanni’s truth-telling servant, Leporello (reading Giovanni’s catalog of sexual conquests from his smart phone), the rest of the excerpts s unfortunately felt compromised.

Due to the opera’s sense of continuity, some excerpts had pasted-in alternate endings. Mozart’s characters were only the shadow of themselves. Stutzmann had only a tentative rapport with opulent-voiced soprano Jacquelyn Stucker in the great aria “Mi tradì”, although tenor Kenneth Tarver – a truly promising singer – was given latitude to add expressive vocal embellishments. to “Il mio tesoro instanto”.

And where was the main character? Missing in action – hopefully having as good a time as Owens singing about Giovanni’s escapades.

Mozart was framed by candid and intimate works by two composers known for anything but: Richard Wagner in the Siegfried Idyll and Arnold Schoenberg in transfigured night. Stutzmann was much more in his element, giving highly inflected performances that sounded like wordless operas.

Both pieces have explicit references to extra-musical issues. Schoenberg’s work is about a woman announcing her infidelity and pregnancy to her partner, and finding a way for them to go from there. The musical structure would parallel that of Richard Dehmel’s poem which inspired the music; with this in mind, Stutzmann gave the piece a strong sense of individually contrasting episodes, many of them having their own specific sound world. The less than immaculate acting added to the emotional fever in which this piece bathes.

by Wagner Idyll was written for private performance to celebrate the birth of his son, to which Stutzmann responded with great swells of the Philadelphia Orchestra sound suggesting the boundless affection and wonder of early parenthood. In both pieces, however, Stutzmann’s Achilles heel was the rhetorical pauses written in both scores. They went well, but came across as just a lack of sound and didn’t speak.

Additional performances: Saturday 8 p.m. and Sunday 2 p.m. at Verizon Hall, Broad and Spruce Sts. Tickets: $22 to $168., 215-893-1999.

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