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.
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.
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.