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Sunday, Sep 23, 2018
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Opera Tampa putting a twist on Mozart’s beloved ‘Don Giovanni’

Daniel Lipton has no intention of giving away the ending.

Of course, anyone who loves opera knows what happens in the last dramatic moments of Mozart’s “Don Giovanni,’’ an audience favorite ever since its premiere in 1787. After more than two centuries, how can anyone not know how things wind up?

They won’t tonight and Sunday, when Opera Tampa stages its final production of the season — with a concluding twist.

“I won’t say what happens because I don’t want to ruin the surprise,’’ says Lipton, Opera Tampa’s artistic director and conductor.

Maybe that’s a good thing. New interpretations of old works keep them fresh, even one where a stone monster and a lecherous nobleman descend into the fires of perdition. Opera Tampa has earned the right to take artistic liberties after more than 20 years of performances at the Straz Center. From its first opera, “Madame Butterfly” in 1996, to the world premiere of Anton Coppola’s “Sacco & Vanzetti” in 2001 to today, Opera Tampa has made its stamp as one of the finer regional companies in the United States.

Although its repertoire has been decidedly conservative, it’s what audiences want, and a consistent dose of Mozart makes box office sense, says Lipton, who opened the season with “Cosi fan Tutte” and followed with Verdi’s “La Traviata.” Some of the principal singers in those operas also will appear in this weekend’s performances.

“For me it’s not a double dose of Mozart,’’ he says, “but a double gift of Mozart.’’

Many believe “Don Giovanni” is Mozart’s most convincing opera. He made a strong case through his collaboration with the prominent librettist Lorenzo da Ponte. He also was at the top of his game as a composer, and this jocular drama contains musical atmosphere and characterizations that not even Mozart could improve upon.

“There’s something extraordinary about Mozart and especially ‘Don Giovanni,’ ” Lipton says. “It’s certainly an incredible star in the constellation of art. Each time I hear passages from it I get goose bumps.’’

Lipton isn’t alone in his praise. The French composer Charles Gounod called “Don Giovanni” a work without blemish, of uninterrupted perfection. The novelist Gustave Flaubert described it as among the three finest things God ever made, alongside “Hamlet” and the sea.

Part of its appeal can be found in the way Mozart tackles Herculean complexities. In the ball scene that ends Act I, for example, three small orchestras enter the stage, each playing different music that represents levels of social class. One plays a minuet in 3/4 time, the next a country dance in 2/4 time, and another a variation of an allemande in 3/8 time. While this is going on, the “real” orchestra is playing in the pit, and singers are going about their business. Lipton likens it to controlled chaos.

“It’s very difficult to conduct,” he says. “You have four orchestras playing different types of dances in different time signatures, all simultaneously. But it works. It’s like the perfect musical jigsaw puzzle.”

“Don Giovanni” is traditionally a long opera, often running three hours and 45 minutes with intermission. This can test the patience of people not familiar with the development of musical themes and characters in opera. To bring it down to under three hours, Opera Tampa cut some of the fat. It also needed to adhere to a $300,000 budget, and orchestra union rules require musicians to be paid overtime on performances of more than three hours.

However, the deletions — mostly minor recitative where singers adopt the rhythms of normal speech — won’t matter to the majority of people in the audience.

“Only opera specialists or people who bring a score and a flashlight to the hall would be aware of the cuts,” Lipton says. “Most people won’t even notice the difference.”

The production will be sung in Italian with English translations projected above the stage.

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