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A Dandy Don 

Dictators and regimes have been toppled; control of Congress, the Senate, and the White House has changed hands; a World Trade Center has vanished in smoke; and a new millennium has begun since the last time Opera Carolina presented Don Giovanni in 1999. What hasn't changed, of course, is Mozart's tale of rascality, brutality, mindless devotion and supernatural retribution.

Teeter-tottering between slapstick and melodrama, fabliau and tragedy, Mozart's rich creation has a capacity for radical shape-shifting when entrusted to a fresh team of stage and musical directors, singers, and designers. In essence, we saw a different opera last week at the Belk Theater than the one we saw on the same stage nine seasons earlier. Only the notes and the Lorenzo da Ponte libretto were the same.

If you attended the 1999 version, it was unforgettably high-tech and high-concept, unbalanced and asymmetrical, dark and minimalist, focused on the psychology, susceptibility, fallibility, cunning, and determination of mankind and its traditional gender roles. The fearsome Commendatore whom Giovanni kills, eventually returning to drag the rake off to perdition? An elemental dust-to-dust force with a slight hellish tinge.

With all the trappings and spectacle of medieval Spain spread from wing to wing ñ in costumes, architecture, and a generous mix of nobility and peasantry ñ stage director Chad Calvert emphasized the comedy of Giovanni. Working mostly with Opera Carolina newcomers, Calvert was dealt a set of vocalists well suited to his aims.

First and foremost, there was Rock Hill native Kristopher Irmiter. Gifted with a rich bass-baritone voice that penetrates effortlessly to the uppermost balcony, Irmiter zestfully threw himself into the cunning, the chivalry, the conceit, and the fatal incorrigibility of the legendary Don. All in a dashing package that, I suspect, set far more female hearts aflutter in the hall than onstage. Calvert could have asked Irmiter to take the rakehell in numerous directions with equal success, I'm sure.

Contrast that flexibility to bass Stephen Morscheck as Giovanni's hapless servant and patsy, Leporello. Luckily, Calvert gave this chronicler of the Don's legend enough flamboyant stage props and business to mask the fact that, despite Morscheck's fine control of the famous catalogue aria, you'd have to dredge up Keanu Reeves to find a more expressionless actor.

All three of the Don's conquests had fine moments, but Inna Dukach as rape victim/grieving daughter/reluctant fiancÈe Donna Anna was by far the most sensational of the soprano trio. Of course, Anna is draped in mourning black all evening long, so Malinda Haslett drew the saucier comic bits as Zerlina, Giovanni's casual peasant pickup. Hers was a more consistently pleasurable performance than Caitlin Lynch's debut as the repeatedly duped Donna Elvira. Lynch's top mellowed as the evening progressed, dissipating the initial shrillness of the jilted lover.

The cuckolded men were marvelously cast and sung, Victor Ryan Robertson as Donna Anna's nobly deferred groom, Don Ottavio, and Krassen Karagiosov as Zerlina's simpleton, Masetto. Calvert resourcefully miked Myron Myers when he vengefully returned from the grave as The Commendatore, but on the strength of the opening scene ñ or rather the lack of it ñ I wouldn't invite him back for an unamplified role.

Calvert wasn't all about the comedy, but he was surer with it. He had Giovanni toying with The Commendatore during the early moments of their duel, provoked to kill the old man only when the protective father ripped off his mask. A nice impulsive touch, I thought. But the hairpin turns between comedy, the macabre, and jubilant celebration at the end of Act 2 momentarily derailed this production.

Women from the chorus encircled Giovanni at the foot of a staircase leading upwards to The Commendatore -- now a statue returned from the dead -- beckoning at his front door. No doubt Calvert wished to evoke something like Macbeth's demise, but the lurid light and the waving arms of the women smacked more of chorines vamping in Vegas.

After more than 2,000 sexual escapades, you've got to bring on more to bring down the Don. So the ending of the sensual, Arcadia-styled production at Spoleto was far more satisfying -- a prime attraction in its two season run. But with Irmiter dazzling as the legendary Lothario, this dandy Giovanni had enough charm to seduce even admirers of that Charleston edition.

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