New York, NY – Mozart’s Don Giovanni is all about sex, and it is precisely because of this overt and covert sexual impetus that the opera has remained at the forefront of the standard repertory for two centuries. It is also why, in the past two decades, there have been so many new productions, all desperate to out-sex the other, as opera company’s scramble to attract the next generation of opera audiences. Falling somewhere between a comedy of lovers and a pulpit pontification on adultery and murder, the difficulty of assigning a genre to Don Giovanni like the “problem plays of Shakespeare,” enriches the interpretive possibilities, deepens its emotional scope, and, in this gray area between humor and horror, highlights our own split-identities.
Unfortunately, gray was the over-arching tone of Michael Grandage’s debut production of Don Giovanni at the Metropolitan Opera. The centerpiece was the exterior of a dilapidated apartment building that invoked Elizabeth, NJ rather than sexy sixteenth century Seville. The set was dominated by this colossal set piece which was spattered with chipped and faded paint, constructed of balconies and doors à la Hollywood Squares, and bathed in unrelentingly ponderous, hoary lighting. Perhaps the intention was to show an externalization of Seville’s and Giovanni’s moral decay, but this one-dimensional tableau only suffocates the dual sombre and jocular narrative of DaPonte’s libretto and Mozart’s music.
It was obvious that Grandage had conceived of this set piece with the marvelous graveyard scene in mind, when the various doorways were occupied by larger than life statues flanking the enormous statue of the murdered Commendatore that gazed menacingly down at Giovanni, Leporello, and the audience. With just thirty minutes or so remaining in the evening, this thrilling theatrical moment was too late to wake up an audience that had been lulled into polite applause.
Because of two unfortunate accidents, Grandage’s monochromatic production was fortunately enlivened by the dramatically acute conducting of Fabio Luisi, the company’s new principal conductor who replaces James Levine in several key productions this fall, and the insightful and eloquent Peter Mattei as Don Giovanni standing in for the Polish baritone Mariusz Kwiecien who is recovering from back surgery after an injury during the dress rehearsal. Luisi’s leadership kept the music and the story interesting in conflict with the stasis of the production. During the recitatives, Maestro Luisi played the harpsichord as if he himself were an actor engaged in the dialogue on stage. It was energetic, frantic, and delightfully conversational and the singers, especially Peter Mattei and Luca Pisaroni (Leporello) were willing and receptive collaborators.
Mattei’s intellect and instinct as a singer and an actor embodied the duality of both Giovanni the character and Don Giovanni the opera. He offered an equal amount of youthful, irresistible charisma alongside his violent, overt sociopathic impulses. Free of blemishes, mannerisms, or the wear of an international career, Mattei made full use of his polychromatic instrument to bring flesh, blood and spirit to a character who is so often dismissed as an amoral deviant. One of the evening’s most arresting theatrical moments was during the graveyard and dinner scenes, when Mattei’s voice, shaken, darkened, and rallied to maniacal defiance by the reappearances of the man he has murdered, betrays Giovanni’s human vulnerability.
As Leporello, Luca Pisaroni sang with an engaging mixture of comedy and drama, taking full advantage of the servant’s ambivalent attitude toward his master. When required, he could sing rough and crudely or with a genuine, cantabile pathos. He is an animated and inventive actor who is not afraid to challenge the audience’s pre-conception of who “Leporello” is without sacrificing his lush and virile Mozartean sound.
Barbara Frittoli sang an uneven Donna Elvira incongruous with the prestige of her career. In Act I she was inaudible in Evlira’s lower-lying passages, of which there are many, and her top was simply out-of-control; however, her elegant and somewhat neurotic charm as the jilted but unyielding Elvira was clear the instant she appeared. Thankfully, her voice warmed as the evening went on and by Act II her innately expressive, if rough, voice matched the nuance of her acting.
Whereas Frittoli eventually reached a respectable roar, Marina Rebeka, in her house debut as Donna Anna, didn’t even attempt to break through the ice. The Latvian soprano is blessed with flawless clarity of tone and a well-sculpted voice which is equipped with clarion high notes and full, easy chest tones. In her hands, however, Donna Anna lacked passion, emotion, and drive for a woman whose father was just murdered by the man who attempted to rape her. We must remember that the cause of Giovanni’s downfall is not the crime of rape but that of murder, so without a Fury-like Donna Anna, or at least one who has enough fire within her to rally an entire city to avenge her father’s death, there is nothing to pull the drama forward. If Rebeka was subconscious about over-acting then all she needed to do was look to her side at Ramon Vargas, her Don Ottavio, who makes up for his uninteresting instrument and archaic acting by blending musical eloquence with simple, genuine communication.
Of course no discussion of Don Giovanni would be complete without mentioning Zerlina and Masetto, the recently wedded peasant couple who find themselves in the middle of a murder mystery when all they wanted to do was dance, get wasted, and have sex. Mojca Erdmann’s debut was bejeweled with an adorable, elastic face and an appropriately girlish and refined lyric coloratura soprano. Her amorous interactions with the irresistibly sexy Australian bass, Joshua Bloom, were as heart-warmingly simple as they were subtly raunchy. As Masetto, Bloom wedded his hot-headed reactions with masculinely mellifluous singing.
The Metropolitan Opera made an attempt to bring in a new perspective by entrusting their new Don Giovanni to the acclaimed theater director Michael Grandage; however, when the production fell flat, the responsibility of telling the story fell to – who would’ve guessed it – the singers and the musicians. The majority of them shouldered the burden with respectable aplomb.
“Don Giovanni” runs through November 11 at the Metropolitan Opera, with additional performances (and additional casts!) in February and March. Photos: Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera