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Saturday's opening performance of the Mozart masterpiece "Don Giovanni" was finely balanced, deftly directed and well-sung.

In fact, by the middle of the first act things were going so smoothly that the temptation was to settle in for an excellent, almost flawless, yet generic production.

But if you watched carefully there were things going on, maybe not all to your liking, that lifted the production into a higher realm.

The sets from Michigan Opera Theater were made of sturdy but decadent-looking wall and column modules whose elegantly designed exterior finish had been worn away in places to reveal the common brick structure underneath. It was all very believable.

Under the new agreement with the umbrella organization Opera Ontario, the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony was in the pit for this production, solid and reliable under Daniel Lipton's baton, but perhaps lacking a bit of the polish and refinement we have come to expect.

As for the singers, the initial impression was that they were virtually even up with respect to musical and dramatic values. But over the three-plus hours it gradually became clear that Welsh baritone Jason Howard as the lecherous Don Giovanni was certainly first among these equals. And that's as it should be in this opera.

Howard's voice was finely focused and warm, beguilingly tender in his duet with Zerlina "La ci darem la mano," filled with bravado in the intoxicating "Champagne Aria," which he hurled out with wicked gusto.

Good as Howard's singing was, though, it was his stage manner that ignited the role of Don Giovanni. Svelte, handsome and supremely confident, Howard was so persuasive as he talked his way into many amorous entanglements and out of the ones which suddenly became sticky, that it was easy to start believing him. I had to keep reminding myself that this was the world's greatest seducer on stage, not someone I'd want my daughter to hang around with.

The Don's long-suffering manservant/flunky Leporello was played by baritone Desmond Byrne with a fine mixture of resignation, indignation and servile compliance. He clipped out the famous "Catalog Aria" a bit more deliberately than usual, perhaps, but with a very musical line and engaging sense of its rhythmic possibilities.

All three sopranos were excellent. Sally Dibblee as Zerlina reacted superbly to the wildly changing circumstances in which she was thrust, and her charming aria to Masetto "Batti, batti" was lovely and innocent, matching her character. Christiane Riel as Donna Elvira subbed for for an indisposed Eva Zseller on short notice and brought a very live, vibrant voice to the role, particularly in her Act 2 aria "Mi tradi quel alma ingrata." And as Donna Anna, Joanne Kolomyjec's pointedly clear, ringing voice had all the drama needed to bring out her rage over the Don's dual crimes: deserting her and killing her father.

Tenor Benjamin Butterfield initially sounded a bit tremulous as Don Ottavio, but by the time his big "Il mio tesoro" aria came up in Act 2 he was able to deliver it in elegant yet finely impassioned style. Baritone Timothy Truschel was a good, bumpkinish Masetto.

Stage director Ken Cazan really made the big difference in this production, though. He staged it masterfully, but didn't upstage the drama. Throughout, he kept adding small, sly touches of central or aside action that humanized the characters on stage, for example Leporello's politely ushering guests off to the Don's party, then butting in ahead of the last couple as they filed out the door.

I don't recall having seen a Donna Elvira who was obviously at least seven months pregnant before, but this touch by Cazan added immeasurably to the weight of her outrage against the Don and to the pathetic part of her character as she repeatedly succumbed to give him another chance.

In the final scene Cazan has added four demons who crawl around bedeviling the Don as he is confronted by the statue of the slain Commendatore. This was extremely effective, making us forgive that the traditional descent into hell through a trapdoor was replaced by a less dramatic retreat into the wings amid billows of red smoke.

The one place where Cazan may have gone too far is at the beginning of the final scene, where most synopses and stage directions simply refer to the Don as either feasting or enjoying himself. Instead, Cazan gives us a detailed debauchery, with the Don "seducing" (the proper word cannot be used in a family newspaper) three women on a table after they are dragged in by his lackeys.

This excess notwithstanding, the production remains a very compelling and eminently human account of one of our great operatic masterpieces.

Don Giovanni

Mozart opera, produced by Opera Hamilton in Italian with English supertitles.

Conducted by Daniel Lipton, directed by Ken Cazan, featuring Jason Howard, Desmond Byrne and Christiane Riel.

Opened on Saturday in the Great Hall, Hamilton Place; additional performances in the Great Hall at 8 p.m. Thursday and Saturday and at 8 p.m. Nov. 1 in Circle-in-the-Square, Kitchener-Waterloo, Ont.

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