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Don Giovanni: Finding the Right Man for the Role

By Speight Jenkins

When I first heard Mariusz Kwiecien in the late 1990s, I was impressed with his voice. When he sang Dr. Malatesta in Seattle Opera’s Don Pasquale (2003), I knew that I had found a baritone superstar, an artist who ranks with any lyric baritone singing today. The main difference between Mariusz and the others is the sheer volume he brings to what he sings; though he is a lyric, he has a great deal of power. When he was here for Pasquale, I saw in his amazing charisma and charm that he was a born Giovanni. It turned out that he had performed the role several times already, once in the largest theater in his native Poland. Since we had not heard the opera in Seattle since 1999, I asked him if he was free in 2007. Many other companies have followed my lead. He performs the work in San Francisco shortly after coming to us, and many other Giovannis loom in his future.

Why is it so important who takes on this role? Why is it necessary not only to be able to sing the role but to have the charisma to make it believable? The answers come from the libretto and the music. First of all, Don Juan or Don Giovanni is an image familiar to most people. He is the male Carmen, the representative of the male animal, seducing uncountable numbers of women. He is the man of whom men can be envious and women fascinated by. That he doesn’t succeed in seducing one of the three women in the opera only makes him more enigmatic. Overall the character both repels and attracts with equal power. A great Giovanni is one who must generate sparks at every turn and I saw this characteristic in Mariusz.

I had more trouble finding the right artist for the three Sunday/Friday performances. A French baritone auditioned for me in Paris in 2002. When I learned that he was not available to perform the role—he is coming here for another role in 2009—I realized that virtually in our own backyard we had the right person. Seattle Opera’s Young Artists Program presented Don Giovanni in 2000. One of the Giovannis, American baritone Morgan Smith, struck me at the time as having all the ingredients of the great seducer. He was able to be charming and vicious, funny and heartless, truly seductive and dismissive, and his voice was expressive and large-scale. I asked him, and he eagerly accepted. (Since then he has done several productions of Don Giovanni in other theaters with great success.)

The next crucial component was the conductor, and I asked Andreas Mitisek who had led a strong Così fan tutte last season to return. His knowledge and feeling for Mozart may come partly from his Viennese background but transcends this. He knows how to make Mozart live. Director Chris Alexander has had great success in Seattle. His L’Italiana in Algeri this fall is only one more step in a series of popular productions highlighted by his 2004 Ariadne auf Naxos and his 2005 Tales of Hoffmann. He was eager to take on Don Giovanni, an opera he has not previously staged, and he decided to ask Robert Dahlstrom, his designer in both the operas mentioned above, to create his Giovanni world. Marie-Theresa Cramer, who designed the memorably exquisite costumes for Hoffmann, will do the same for Don Giovanni.

The rest of both casts were filled carefully during 2003. Every one of the eight characters is important, but Giovanni is the hub of the wheel with the other seven characters the spokes. With Mariusz Kwiecien and Morgan Smith, we have two great artists in their prime prepared to play one of the most fascinating characters ever imagined.