Real Swords, Fire and Don Giovanni
Like Frankenstein’s monster, opera squeezes all it can out of those who bring it to life. Among musical pursuits, opera reigns supreme at bankrupting its proponents financially and emotionally. Like the inveterate gambler, the opera-maker feeds off the thrills and disappointments of pushing his emotional and monetary stores out onto the stage as if it were a gaming table: “All in” is the shared motto of poker player and impresario.
One the greatest operatic geniuses, Handel was eventually depleted—though not irrevocably—by his obsession with that which he loved most. After the failure of two opera ventures he had led artistically in London, Handel became lease-holder and musical director of the next one. He struggled at if for more than a decade with declining success and fortunes. The stroke he suffered in 1737 could not have been unrelated to the stresses of his operatic endeavor, which yielded much timeless music and drama, but at a considerable psychic and fiscal cost.
Last weekend’s run of three performances at Cornell University of Mozart’s Don Giovanni was conjured by a twenty-year-old undergraduate from Los Angeles named Dorian Bandy. Acting as impresario and conductor, Bandy was also the production’s life-force, one energized by powers that amazed and uplifted audiences, and whose unflagging source could only be guessed and marveled at. Put on in period costume and without sets save the neo-Tudor décor of the early 20th-century dining hall where it was performed, this Don Giovanni was an unforgettable triumph of talent, perseverance, devotion, and a the requisite quotient of madness without which opera would never be undertaken in the first place.
Bandy assembled monies—some $20,000—from a vast patchwork of departments and organizations across the sprawling university, in many ways so similar to the court societies of the 17th-and 18th century that spawned opera. Like aristocrats who funded Handel back in the 18th-century, various academic lords and ladies threw in bits of cash until Bandy had assembled funds still vastly insufficient for the task ahead.
The shortfall was made up by a mixture of cajoling, pleading and bribes.
Bandy recruited an operatic cast and orchestral players from among his friends and fellow students, that is, from both professionals and amateurs. Ad hoc hoteliers had to be enlisted to put up participants from out of town. Orchestral parts had to be made, wigs found, and costumes sewed. Bandy’s hands turn out to be nearly as good with a needle and thread as they were at conducting. There were a thousand other things, too. Bandy either did them himself, or found the best people he could, and then tirelessly helped them. The details and duties of opera multiple like wild fires, yet in the end Bandy put them all out.
He assembled an orchestra of period instruments like those available to Mozart in the 18th-century. Unable to afford importing 18th-century wind players as well, Bandy had to make do with their modern counterparts, but in the event drew from them unexpected precision and liveliness, with only the most occasional hiccough.
Bandy wanted the instrumental and vocal technique of his production to be familiar to Mozart had he walked into that dining hall, where he doubtless have been delighted by what he saw. Bandy also planned to have his singers use 18th-century acting techniques and set about researching the topic with his trademark vigor and comprehensiveness.
This led him to The Hague last summer and to the world expert on historic acting, Javier Lopez Pinon. A busy director of spoken and sung theater, with a long list of impressive credits spanning some two decades years and many countries, Pinon teaches at the Dutch National Opera Academy in Amsterdam and The Hague. At first Pinon declined the invitation to come to Upstate New York to do a Mozart opera. Then Bandy made him an offer he couldn’t refuse, and somehow Pinon appeared three days before the first performance, arriving to help bring the teetering enterprise together with little time remaining.
The production’s original Don Giovanni had unexpectedly cancelled less than two months before opening night, and Bandy scrambled around and eventually found the excellent and game Stephen Lavonier, a native of nearby Oswego, New York. Lavonier now lives in New York City as he tries to break in.
With this near deal-breaker sidestepped, all looked to be in place for Bandy’s Don Giovanni.
Then things started to go wrong.
The opera’s story can’t even get going without Don Giovanni running Donna Anna’s father through in the opening scene. Given the attention to authenticity that governed Bandy’s outlook, real swords were called for and he arranged a special loan from the nearest relevant armory. This was to be found at Ring of Steel, the local “action stunt group.” A couple of days before the first performance, Dorian stopped in to pick up the authentic sabers, expecting that they could be deployed with the rubber safety-on the tip and similar protection for the razor sharp blades. Little did he know that the sword snobs at Ring of Steel would not allow their holdings to be brandished before the public if clad in such demeaning precaution. Bandy and his operatic swordsmen, Lavonier and the Commendatore, Thomas Lehman, were than required to go through a full three-hour safety session, with the sword fight still to be choreographed back at the dining hall—not to mention crucial musical matters to be sorted out. In such situations time becomes hugely relative: each tick of the clock is a slashing wound to the director, whose musicians wait idly back in the hall. The impresario’s own swarms of theatrical details swirl about him, while he is held captive by a wholly unexpected set of authenticities dear to someone equally as obsessive.
At the dress rehearsal on Thursday at eleven in the evening a fire broke out somewhere else in the residence hall precisely at the moment that Don Giovanni is consigned to hell. Chased from the building at the crux of the opera the night before its premiere, the cast and the musicians waited outside as the fire engines roared up. Meanwhile, undergraduates getting a head start on the weekend’s revelries, wondered what exactly had been put in the punch as they passed by this group of 18th-century figures and musicians with their instruments inexplicably milling about outside a dorm.
The fire was more than a just troubling, if well-timed, omen. It was also major headache in practical terms. The dramatic conclusion of the opera and the lieto fine, which tells the audience to approve of the unrepentant Don Giovanni’s damnation, was performed in its entirety for the first time only at the opening performance itself.
The conducting from a fortepiano like the one Mozart would have played, Bandy took his post the following night. The princes of the university were in attendance—various deans and faculty members and a good many students, too. The world’s leading Mozart scholar, Neal Zaslaw, sat with his wife the middle of the audience. Just for good measure, the world’s leading Haydn scholar, James Webster, was nearby.
Bandy has Mozart’s Da Ponte operas and the Magic Flute committed to memory. Bandy took his seat at the keyboard from where he conducted, playing continuo in support of the orchestra, often using only one hand while beating time with the other. He waved his hands with purpose and without histrionics, and the foreboding overture began. By the time the unforgettable evening was over we knew that our Leporello,the Frenchman Florian Bonneau, is a great comic actor a great singer with a voice as agile as it is spontaneous, richly varied and evocative. Bonneau deserves a world-class career to go with his world-class talent. He had flown in from The Hague. From just across one of Ithaca’s gorge’s came young Thomas Lehmann, a sophomore at nearby Ithaca College, who sang the Commendatore and Masetto. He is a real talent, blessed with a penetrating but never-harsh voice and a compelling stage presence that allowed him to convince as the cold and damning statue and as the jealous swain.
A gifted violinist and violist, Bandy is also an ingenious and tasteful accompanist to the operas recitatives—a rare and valuable ability that alone would guarantee him a musical career promising much more than even this. Occasionally he rose half way up from his seat to catch the attention of a section of the orchestra or a slightly wandering singer. The standing ovation after the final ensemble was immediate.
There is something magical about finding truly wonderful things close to home. This week I have been in London and went to the English National Opera’s production of Mussorsky’s Boris Godunov at the Coliseum. The massive choruses, the impressive sets, and expert lighting, the over-top opulence of the theater, the professional orchestra, the demonstrative maestro, the international cast, and the large audience arrayed over several balconies could not between them achieve what Bandy’s Don Giovanni did through the collective belief in his determination and genius: that in each operatic moment anything is possible.
For most, the putting on such a production would take years of your life. For Bandy one had the sense that it only added several more.
DAVID YEARSLEY teaches at Cornell University. A long-time contributor to the Anderson Valley Advertiser, he is author of Bach and the Meanings of Counterpoint His latest CD, “All Your Cares Beguile: Songs and Sonatas from Baroque London”, has just been released by Musica Omnia. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org