The Schenectady Symphony Orchestra has some surprises for its audiences this season and some of those start this Sunday.
“We’re reframing Mozart’s ‘Don Giovanni’ in the era of the Me-Too Movement,” said Sylvia Stoner, who sings the lead soprano role of Donna Elvira. “It’s a new slant and I love it. We’re still speaking with the truth to the characters but can deliver the text with more understanding. That’s the kind of woman I am. I’m not a victim. The women [in the opera] are still abused, but now they’re given more of a voice.”
Lorenzo Da Ponte’s libretto is based on a literary classic dating back to the Middle Ages. Don Giovanni is a cavalier Spanish lover, whose ruthless pursuit of women and his profane treatment of them deserves only the most dramatic punishment. The opera, which premiered in 1787 in Prague, has some of Mozart’s most eloquent music.
“But the opera is being scrutinized in a different way now,” said SSO music director Glen Cortese. “This is great music but we must put the libretto in an historical perspective. In the opera, the women are the weaker characters, but they get their revenge. This is a great solution.”
Initially, Stoner, who is also artist-in-residence at Skidmore College, suggested the libretto could be retold through the recitatives, which tell the story line and are spoken. The arias, which are sung, embellish what the recitatives tell. After some discussion, she and Cortese asked Cate LeCours, a former Skidmore student and currently working on an advanced degree at Peabody Institute, to re-do the recitatives and give more of a modus operandi as to how Don Giovanni operated.
“Cate sent us drafts and Sylvia and I made some suggestions and hashed it out over a month, but Cate knew what we were after,” Cortese said. “She fulfilled it nicely. This is more balanced.”
Stoner added that LeCours preserved most of the original text because Da Ponte also “damned Don Giovanni” but she gave more empathy to the other characters.
There will be eight scenes of dialogue that will replace the recitatives and will be spoken in English. The arias will be sung in Italian. The opera will be presented in concert version, with no costumes and only a few props and comes in at about two hours.
The cast includes a 14-member chorus made up of students from the Skidmore Vocal Chamber Ensemble, other members of the college vocal faculty, and award-winning baritone Brian Major, who fans may remember from Opera Saratoga’s 2016 production of “Il Postino.”
While Major has sung the role of Don Giovanni before, this is the first time for Stoner, who said she was very excited and not put off by the challenges that Mozart’s vocal ranges are known to test singers’ capacities.
“He conceived the female parts as three sopranos but he put me low with them,” she said. “That’s fun to explore, but in my arias I’m a soprano. It will be a real way to pace myself.”
The opera, too, will be performed at the Universal Preservation Hall, the first time the orchestra has played there, but Cortese said he saw no issues especially since he’ll be using a smaller size orchestra. This is also the first time the orchestra has performed a full opera.
The collaboration with Skidmore is something that Cortese said is part of how he sees future seasons.
“The Schenectady orchestra has a community tie and I want to tie that in with other organizations,” he said. “That’s why in my first season we collaborated with members of The College of Saint Rose. We did that, too, along with Skidmore last season for a virtual “Cosi Fan Tutte” and in the future I hope to collaborate with choruses. It’s why I’m very excited to be in Saratoga Springs. . .because there’s an opera audience there and we hope to gain new members.”
The rest of the season is also a bit groundbreaking. On November 27, “Poinsettia Pops” returns also to Universal Preservation Hall. But in the spring with the Feb. 6 concert, the orchestra returns to Proctors with a program that includes Copland, Mendelssohn and a piece Cortese wrote, “Voyager,” a Journey to the Stars.”
“Voyager opened eyes to what our solar system and universe look like,” he said. “It’s quite fascinating.”
The theme is a bit other-worldly so Cortese said he may use a synthesizer to make more unusual sounds that orchestral instruments can’t.
The season continues April 3 with Brahms and pianist Ryan Reilly, the 2007 Parillo Piano Competition winner, in Rachmaninoff; and May 1 with Ravel, Beethoven, and violinist Aram Kim, the 2018 Stefan Competition winner, in Corigliano.
Schenectady Symphony Orchestra
WHEN: 3 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 24
WHERE: Universal Preservation Hall, 25 Washington St., Saratoga Springs
HOW MUCH: $18
MORE INFO: www.schenectadysymphony.com; www.proctors.org