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A Super Don Giovanni in Avignon
by Mike Harvey

Mozart's 250th birthday was this year and it seems that every opera company in the world celebrated it with performances of his most popular works. Don Giovanni checked off his list of conquests in major houses including Walnut Creek's Festival Opera, the Paris Opera Garnier, an upcoming SF Opera production next summer and recently, in a glittering outing at L'Opéra-théâtre d'Avignon in that most agreeable Provencal city.

L'Opéra-théâtre d'Avignon has a short season of only three performances of three productions as the house is constantly used for concerts, plays, recitals, ballet, and anything that requires a stage. Consequently, this Don Giovanni was the hottest ticket in town, and the only seats available for the October 27 opening night performance were in the 4th balcony, top row center. The ticket office was quick to make the strangely ominous assurance that one could hear the music from that vantage point.

This was an eagerly awaited and completely sold out production from l'Opéra de Marseille featuring Marina Poplavskaya as Donna Anna, Michelle Canniccioni as Donna Elvira, Eric Martin-Bonnet as Leporello, and Nicolas Cavallier as the Don. It was definitely a major event and at thirty minutes before curtain the Avignon glitterati could be seen tossing back oysters, steak frites, and champagne at the Opera Cafe across the Place de l’Horloge.

At ten minutes, a trumpeter paraded around the front steps of the theater playing a hopeful fanfare in an attempt to coax the audience away from their tartes tatin and espressos. Finally it seemed that the entire audience had received their cue from some unseen ASM and they arrived en masse and formed a grand procession to enter the theater at fifteen minutes past curtain time.

Curiously, the 4th balcony was not reachable from the beautiful lobby of this charming italianate theater. One had to go into the basement and exit into a shabby back-stairs area and climb five flights to emerge on a platform slightly above ceiling levellooking straight down into the orchestra pit. To save room, or perhaps to provide an atmosphere of la vie bohéme, there were no actual seats in the 4th balcony. There were five rows of hard shelves and the top row was indeed at least 30 inches above the ornate baroque ceiling. It was necessary to lean left or right and down in order to see the stage. This provided an opportunity to get to know your neighbors rather intimately. The lady on the left explained that she hated opera but her husband had a front row orchestra seat. She was there to keep an eye on him with her binoculars. And indeed at one point during the performance she was heard to suddenly gasp and mutter "merde" as she bolted from her perch and headed for the exit.

The show started at least thirty minutes late but nobody seemed to mind as there was a great deal of socializing to be done. People were calling out to each other from various parts of the house and there were hundreds of cell phone conversations to complete before the maestro finally entered the rather enormous pit and began the overture.

The curtain rose on a dark, empty stage which seemed to represent a courtyard. At various times rather solid-looking walls would fly in and somehow move laterally SL or SR only to fly out again. All of the principals were young and attractive, with strong, pleasing voices. Nicolas Cavallier made a handsome Don Giovanni and it was easy to see why all the ladies kept falling into bed with him. The two Donnas were beautiful to look at and very capable artists. The orchestra sounded lush and the ticket lady was correct in that the acoustics in the rafters were superb.

It was the Supers, however, who really stole the show. They were everywhere. Bringing in chairs, taking out chairs, pretending to be asleep until required to leap up and bring in or out yet more chairs. There were townspeople, ladies, gentlemen, lackeys, oafs, oafesses, assorted non-lackey servants, and lots of beautiful young men and women for the party scene, constantly moving, chatting, teasing, kissing, chasing, dancing, eating enormous ice cream cones during the party, and having a fine time.

At the conclusion of Act I, it was necessary to make the decision to either leave the theater or pass out from the oppressive heat and lack of oxygen in the balcony torture chamber. So this reviewer staggered down the back stairs and out into the balmy Indian-summer evening thinking that it was time to go for a cold beer. There is a wonderful cafe just behind the theater on rue Racine near the stage door. On the way it was a nice surprise to find the entire cast outside enjoying cigarettes and coffee. A giggling gaggle of powdered wigs and hoop skirts seemed most appropriate in this little sixteenth-century alley.

Two of the bewigged Supers explained that they had never heard of Supers, but they were in fact non-singing, non-paid actors who move things around onstage and generally bring life to what would otherwise be just a dull and boring opera. They proudly added that since the costumes and wigs fitted them so well, they would both be appearing in Le nozze di Figaro in 2007.

No matter what they are called, it is the same for Supers the world over.

Don Giovanni in Avignon photo gallery.