Every summer, or at least the last 65 summers, just before the lightning bugs start to make their debut at Inspiration Point on U.S. Highway 62 near Eureka Springs, dozens of otherwise sensible people trek from their milder, less-mosquito-ridden climes across the United States (or abroad) to a neatly kept campus and amphitheater in Arkansas. The weather couldn't serve as a worse ambassador for Our Lady Arkansas; guests come during the cruelest months of the year.
All have entered into a mutual agreement that none of them is going anywhere until four operas are fully staged, outfitted with sets and performed. With an orchestra. In the original language. And by the time the newcomers discover what chiggers are, it's really too late to back out.
Mozart's "Don Giovanni" ushered in the season. It's an utterly perfect fit for the goals the company espouses. Somehow, Mozart managed to write a fast-paced, comedic crowd-pleaser that still depicts a murder and attempted rape in the first 15 minutes. It's an opera performed so frequently that the singers want to get its roles under their belt, knowing that opportunities to perform them again will likely come knocking.
One such role, in this case, was the title: Giovanni himself. Based on the legend of Don Juan, Giovanni is too often described as "licentious" or "libertine," apparently by people who are too polite to say he is a complete asshole who wouldn't understand the idea of consent if its definition were tattooed on his forearm. I met the young man who played Giovanni, Mason Jarboe, after the opera and can attest to his pleasant demeanor, but he acted the part so adeptly I couldn't help but hate him a little when he was on stage. Jarboe, a debonair youth with Jude Law cheekbones and sly eyebrows, danced his way through the performance as if it were a ballet, giving Giovanni all the suave affability he needed to triumph in his sexual conquests, but also the disgustingly inflated sense of entitlement we needed to properly despise him. Mark my words: It won't be Jarboe's last Giovanni. The baritone already possesses a strong command of how to make an Italian line flow, and he exhibited beauty at every volume level. Unlike some big-name Giovannis, Jarboe resisted the temptation to over-sing the role; after all, so many of the Don's lines are sung in faux intimacy directly into a woman's ear — they shouldn't all be grand declarations! It was only after I heard him sing the role that I discovered several facts that made his performance all the more impressive: He is merely 21 years old, was involved in a car accident just before rehearsals began, was tasked with singing demanding roles in two other concurrent productions, "Pagliacci" and "Il Tabarro," and was "walking" the part in rehearsals as a stand-in for one of his doubles (almost all roles at Opera in the Ozarks are double-cast), who had been injured prior to arrival in Arkansas.
And then there was Megan Gryga as Donna Anna. Gryga, who sang the role of Fiordiligi in "Cosi fan tutte" at Opera in the Ozarks in 2014, returned to Eureka Springs on break from her work at the Houston Grand Opera. Gryga is built for singing Mozart's heroines: She moves across the stage regally, giving the right sense of heft to characters of nobility, and has the rare combination of an easy, fluid coloratura in the upper part of her range, matched by a dark, sensuous middle register. Donna Anna can be a thanklessly difficult role — she's all sobs and mourning — but there was no mistaking the audience's gratitude after Gryga's splendid "Non mi dir," followed first by applause, then a wave of enthusiastic whispers. (You know a soprano's done things right when folks are grabbing for their programs mid-performance to cement her name in their minds.)
Gryga shares a mentor (Melanie Sonnenberg) with Caroline Maier, who played Zerlina, which had the most marvelous effect on the ensemble pieces. Because the pair of sopranos' vowel formation was so similar, Mozart's beloved ensemble pieces were made cohesive and seamless. (No doubt the sonic unity was influenced by Music Director Thomas Cockrell, who likely believes there is a special place in hell for people who ignore Mozart recitative and ensemble pieces to spend more time perfecting their arias.) Maier as Zerlina was an absolute thrill to hear, and somewhat difficult to characterize; Zerlina is often cast as a soubrette role, for light, flute-like voices, and although Maier is physically soubrette-ish, her tone is much deeper and richer, and that round, warm quality is present throughout her whole range. (Her Italian recitative was on fleek, too; if there are paths worn in the ground leading to the campus' practice rooms, she's likely responsible.)
In "Giovanni," the Commendatore gets all the glory. It's a small but important role with a surprise finish, and it must be sung by the same kind of booming bass voice that gives the appropriate gravitas to, say, "Old Man River." Artega Wright was authoritative, and although the orchestra knew exactly what to do to allow that voice to fill every square inch of the amphitheater, he barely needed the help; Wright's voice is enormous, which lent great drama to the opera's supernatural conclusion.
"Don Giovanni" will be performed again July 7 and July 15 in the Opera in the Ozarks Theater at 16311 Highway 62 West in Eureka Springs. Opera in the Ozarks' 66th season also includes performances of Britten's "Albert Herring," as well as a double-bill pairing Leoncavallo's "Pagliacci" with the rarely performed "Il Tabarro," the first in Puccini's trilogy "Il Trittico." The season ends July 15. For tickets, visit opera.org or call 479-253-8595.