By Erica Hobbs
As the relentless scorned lover of Don Giovanni, some have considered Donna Elvira a mad woman. Despite learning of Don Giovanni’s thousands of conquests, murder and attempted rape, she continues her pursuit of him, convinced he will eventually change his ways and return her love.
But Nicole Cabell has a different perspective. Donna Elvira has become a signature role for the soprano, one she has performed throughout world in Cologne, Berlin, Tokyo, Cincinnati, Milwaukee, San Sebastian, and now, Detroit.
Below she discusses her approach to her staple role and why Donna Elvira is anything but mad.
How would you describe the character and her relationship with Don Giovanni?
Donna Elvira is a noblewoman who will not take her betrayal lying down. Don Giovanni has left her in a precarious position of compromised honor after seducing her, and she is in fierce pursuit of him. She wishes to find him, convert him into an honorable man, and eventually marry him, no matter how angered she is with him in the present moment. When she does find him, she attempts to steer his other victims away from him. It is debatable whether or not this is because she wants him all to herself, or she is trying to protect them, but it’s probably a little of both. She is really the only woman in the opera that truly loves him, and she believes, at least for a moment, that he is capable of change.
How do you approach portraying the role?
I believe she must be portrayed with incredible strength and ferocity. The music is written with this in mind, as it can be very militant and angular during some of her solos. However, her music is also very soft and feminine in parts, and this reflects her dual nature. I try to play her in both respects, to simply do what the music tells me to. She is one of the more complex characters in opera and should never be played as hysterical or manic. We see her duality, her constant push and pull away from Don Giovanni, her anger coupled with pity and love and her ulterior motives dancing alongside her transparency. In actuality, she is very human.
Has the way you portrayed Donna Elvira evolved over time?
While my understanding of her has grown deeper over the years, my portrayal has stayed steadfast. Many of the productions I’ve been involved with have been contemporary, but even then, Donna Elvira’s complex, beautiful character has not been tampered with by directors to the point of altering her motivations. I simply sing her the way she is written, which is so detailed and interesting. Don’t mess with a good thing!
How do you feel about portraying the role during today’s social climate? Does that affect your interpretation?
I’ve always played her tough, so that will not change. I know of old productions where my character (along with the other woman on stage) might be put in compromising positions on stage. These days, intimate or violent stage work has to be approached in a way that avoids the gratuitous, which is often unnecessary to get ideas across, but used to be a way of stimulating the interest of the audience. I’m thankful for the change, and I don’t believe it will affect my interpretation.
What do you hope audiences take away from Donna Elvira’s story?
I think she is relatable, which is unfortunate given how badly she’s been scorned. But no one can say they haven’t been the victim of some bad behavior in their lives, and hopefully in this production I can portray a character that is a fighter, that reflects the (albeit doomed, in her case) beauty of perseverance and determination. Also, Donna Elvira’s capacity to love even the most wicked of men is something many can relate to. While she gives into weakness here and there, she is constantly rebounding from her abuse, and comes across as a survivor rather than a victim.