A Two-Dimensional Production Leaves Much to be Desired

As a writer, particularly a critical writer, I believe that the best way to convey a critical message is to allow one’s review to embody the experience of having “been there” as purely as possible.  It must be a reaction to what was witnessed, an answer to the abstract questions any major work of art will ask of its audience.  A shrewd critical mind will consider the choices that were made, and try to illuminate the motivation behind those choices and how they may have contributed to the greater aesthetic of the production and, of course, the experience of the concert goer.

In the case of Tuesday night’s production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, at the Pittsburgh Opera, I was left to wonder whether stage director Justin Way made any choices at all in designing his production.  I am not suggesting a variety of good ones, or bad ones as I found it very difficult to pick out any moments of solid direction.  Mr. Way boasts a strong resume in many of the world’s top opera houses, but this staunch, dismal portrayal of the immoral escapades of Don Giovanni left me largely in the dark.  The entire course of events was staged in the center of a bullfighting ring, undoubtedly a suggestion of the immoral circus that transpires before Giovanni is dragged to Hell (and a rather blatant tip of the hat to the Spanish setting).  According to Mr. Way’s very brief notes on designing the production, the audience is meant to feel as though they are in attendance, watching the “bullfight” from within the ring.  Unfortunately, there was little by which to be engaged besides the exceptionally well-balanced vocal ability of a thoughtfully selected cast and the ever vigilant ability of Maestro Antony Walker and his orchestra, who performed beautifully.

It was good to hear Sean Panikkar return to the Pittsburgh Opera’s stage, opposite Caitlin Lynch as Don Ottavio and Donna Anna, respectively.  Michael Todd Simpson sang clearly and capably as Don Giovanni alongside Wayne Tigges as Giovanni’s sarcastic servant Leporello and Jennifer Holloway as the Don’s lovesick former conquest, Donna Elvira.  I was, additionally, very happy to hear Hao Jiang Tian as the ill-fated Commendatore, who sang with a powerful resolve at the fiery finale when he returns from the afterlife to harvest Giovanni’s soul.  To round out the cast, Sari Gruber and Resident Artist Joseph Barron teamed up as the dim-witted peasant couple, Zerlina and Masetto and each performed strongly. Tigges, by far, provided the greatest depth of character in the cast as the primary source of comedic relief, though I felt myself wishing for a more animated portrayal.  The remainder of the cast, I fear, fell victim to the same lack of direction as the production itself.

The bullring set, executed by set designer Kimm Kovac, was flimsy and uninteresting and failed to transform figuratively into the various locations of the narrative in true “black box” form, as was the apparent intention.  Most of the time, it felt simply as though the cast were literally climbing around in a bullfighting ring, on and over objects that were inconveniently placed their way; the action only coming to light if one carefully stayed glued to the supertitles above the stage.  The most alarming change was the sudden appearance of a thirty-foot-tall cardboard cutout of an angel, undoubtedly meant to suggest the cemetery in the second act.  Its bizarre scale made the scene feel more like a moment out of Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound, only instead of a Dali-esque nightmare, we are trapped in a Photoshop document.

Two-and-a-half hours in, the final dinner scene erupted with all the activity and scandal that seemed to be missing from the rest of the production, as Don Giovanni, henceforth appearing as a dapper gentleman, is suddenly barefoot and slovenly.  There is slander, abuse and attempted rape and, suddenly, acting.  Unfortunately, when the slain Commendatore appears in the doorway, short in stature, under a flowing white sheet and obscured by thin wisps of smoke, I was left searching the stage for the “terrifying, giant marble statue” that Leporello described as having arrived for dinner.  The biggest presence on the stage at this point was Mr. Tian’s wonderful voice, which I hope we will hear more of in seasons to come and in larger roles.  Finally, Giovanni is cast into Hell, as a panel in the wall falls away and Michael Todd Simpson simply runs through the opening backwards, arms flapping, body off-kilter.

In these final moments, Mr. Way and Ms. Kovac’s nebulous concept came as close to being in-focus as it could, as the cast reenters and occupies the stands of the bullring, clarifying for the first time this notion of spectatorship.  This clarity, so desperately needed throughout, did little to provide a compelling “ah-ha!” moment so near the end and only asserted further that this production of Don Giovanni missed its mark.