In Mozart’s Don Giovanni, the title character is a bit like Barry Bonds in the beginning of the 2006 baseball season. An alleged cheater with a bad reputation, he never actually goes all the way.
Like Bonds, Giovanni comes in with some impressive numbers.
In the famous “catalog” aria — a literary tradition stretching from Homer’s list of Greek ships to Fitzgerald’s list of Gatsby partygoers — Giovanni’s servant Leporello rattles off a list of the Don’s conquests. A hundred girls in France, 91 in Turkey, and 1,003 in Spain.
As portrayed by the dashing Nmon Ford, Giovanni returns to Spoleto this year, only to strike out yet again with the likes of Anna and Masetto.
While Tom Parchman won’t be down there belting them out, he’s an integral part of the festival. A professor of music at the University of Southern Maine in Portland, Parchman has worked every Spoleto Festival since 1982. He played the clarinet in the orchestra for 11 years and now serves as orchestra administrator, staying in the dorm with the “kids,” making sure all 109 make their rehearsals and performances.
Parchman can also, when prompted, provide a college professor’s insight into Mozart’s “playful drama.”
The opera came out in 1787, on the cusp of the French Revolution, and Giovanni, as a has-been womanizer, was a sly allegory for the outdated and unenlightened rule of monarchy, Parchman says.
“That level of politics is something Mozart intended completely. When the peasants are standing there in the first act singing ‘Viva la liberta,’ it’s an amazing point in history — amazing that he was able to slip that by everyone at a time when you couldn’t say that out loud. It’s Mozart being subversive.”
We don’t think of Masonic lodges as hotbeds of activism today, perhaps more as secret for the sake of secrecy. But Mozart was a Mason, and some of his works, The Magic Flute, for instance, have subtle Masonic references and symbolism.
“The Freemasons were a secret group because they were espousing the concept of equality,” Parchman says. “In this case it meant all the white guys being equal, but it was a start.”
Speaking of level playing fields, the hardwood “hills” of the opera’s elaborate set at Memminger Auditorium posed a difficulty for Parchman’s musicians last year. Curved-wood shims had to be custom made to secure their chairs. The six performances managed to go off injury-free.
“No — no spears were dropped on the heads of cellists, ” Parchman says, “which actually did happen in Die Vogel. They weren’t really hurt but we still had to take them to the hospital.”
But while Die Vogel isn’t coming back this year, Don Giovanni is making an unusual re-appearance.
It was a sell-out last year, the set was a lot of trouble for only six shows, and the derelict Memminger Auditorium sits unused all year anyway. Spoleto gets a special temporary certificate of occupancy to use it.
The Festival certainly makes the most of its time in Memminger. Like the ’70s rock group KISS, Giovanni puts the spectacle back in opera.
The action starts with the Don killing the father of a potential conquest and ends with revenge from beyond the grave.
“He’s killed the Commendatore in the very beginning,” Parchman says. “There’s a statue of him in the graveyard, and the statue comes to life.”
In this production, directed by Gunter Kramer, the statue is actually a metonymic 24-foot-tall ‘stone’ head.
“That part is definitely worth seeing,” Parchman says. “In the beginning (the head) is covered with leaves, and at the end it actually rises up. The lights come up, and these arms all grab him in, pull him down into the bowels of the earth. They’ve got a big 6-K (watt) light, this bright light, coming out of the mouth.”
All this spectacle can be quite taxing. Crews have been hustling to get the theatre ready to go again. The shows are spaced closer together this year, and the word is the costumers are concerned they won’t have time to clean and dry the Don’s brocade coat, which gets coated in fake blood at the end of each show, in time for the next one.
Spoleto is in a continual tug-of-war, trying to hold its place among the elite arts festivals while not coming across, at least locally, as too elitist. A classical opera with a set worthy of a Universal Studio ride, Don Giovanni certainly exemplifies this. For a number of events, the Festival is making an effort to offer cheaper seats this year. Tickets to Giovanni run as low as $15 for obstructed views — the lowest last year were $50.
It’s an attempt to broaden the audience — basically the same thing Parchman does by offering some background.
“Opera plots are like Desperate Housewives,” Parchman says. “If you understand a little about it, it’s much more enjoyable than if you sit there and have people scream at you all night.”
DON GIOVANNI • Spoleto Festival USA • May 25, 27, 29, 31, June 2, 4 and 6 at 8 p.m. • $15 (limited view) to $140 • 3 hours • Memminger Auditorium, 20 Beaufain St. • 579-3100