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Luca Pisaroni as Leporello and Peter Mattei as Don Giovanni [Photo by Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera]
26 Oct 2011

Don Giovanni, Metropolitan Opera

According to legend, when composing Don Giovanni, Mozart completed the overture last. It was written the night before the opera’s premiere, while his wife Constanze, a fervent taskmaster, plied him with food and drink to make sure he stayed awake.

W. A. Mozart: Don Giovanni

Donna Anna: Marina Rebeka; Donna Elvira: Barbara Frittoli; Zerlina: Mojca Erdmann; Don Ottavio: Ramón Vargas; Don Giovanni: Peter Mattei; Leporello: Luca Pisaroni; Masetto: Joshua Bloom; The Commendatore: Stefan Kocán. The Metropolitan Opera. Conductor: Fabio Luisi.

Above: Luca Pisaroni as Leporello and Peter Mattei as Don Giovanni

Photos by Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera

 

Supposedly, when the opera was performed the following evening, the ink was still wet on the pages.

GIOVANNI-Frittoli2536.pngBarbara Frittoli as Donna Elvira

The finished product is a marvel of composition. After the opening, two ferocious minor chords, what follows is a depiction of hell: the perfect beginning to an opera whose full title is Don Giovanni, or The Punished Miscreant. When the Met’s new principal conductor, Fabio Luisi, conducted the new production of Don Giovanni on Saturday, October 22nd, he executed the beginning minor chords of the overture with startling accuracy. However, in the following section, in which Mozart depicts hell, he seemed a tad lackluster. Unfortunately, this was a sad harbinger of what was to come, not just from the pit, but from the stage as well.

So what went wrong? My diagnosis is that the Met’s new production, directed by acclaimed Broadway director Michael Grandage, fell victim to the politics of the Peter Gelb regime. As a director who is unfamiliar to opera, Grandage fits well into Gelb’s scheme of operatic rejuvenation, for the purposes of demonstrating to the public that “opera is not just great music, but great theater as well.” To be fair, Mr. Grandage’s work can be breathtaking. A recent Broadway run of Hamlet, starring Jude Law, was a wonderful night at the theater. Unfortunately, Mr. Grandage’s productions function mainly as vehicles for the performers. Had Hamlet not starred the dynamic Mr. Law, it might have come up flat. This is what happened here.

GIOVANNI-Rebeka3432.pngMarina Rebeka as Donna Anna

The real problem with this production, therefore, can be seen as a trick of fate. Under normal circumstances, the title rascal would have been played by baritone Mariusz Kwiecien and James Levine would have been in the pit. As it happened, both Mr. Kwiecien and Mr. Levine were indisposed, so the Finnish baritone Peter Mattei had to be pulled from The Barber of Seville where he was singing Figaro, and Fabio Luisi stepped in, yet again at the last minute, for Mr. Levine.

While an amazing Figaro, Mr. Mattei’s Giovanni was a caricature of the great villain. To be sure, Don Giovanni is an opera buffa, but it is less a bubbling comedy, like Rossini’s Barber, and more a dark comedy with far-reaching political undertones. The oversexed nobleman of the title is supposed to make you laugh, but each laugh is supposed to hurt. Mattei’s Giovanni lacked the essential component of volatility that Mozart so desperately wanted. That said, he sang well. His “Deh vieni alla finestra” was a joy to hear, but despite the masterful singing, this aria, just like the majority of the performance, lacked emotional substance.

As Leporello, Luca Pisaroni was magnificent. He played Giovanni’s servant as a sardonic commentator on the action. His performance as the valet made me hope that he would one day attempt the Don himself. Among the men, other standouts include Ramón Vargas, who gave a wonderfully sung and surprisingly masterful performance as Don Ottavio. He was far from the epitome of inactivity of other productions. Joshua Bloom gave an excellent turn as Masetto, and Štefan Kocán was a marvelously unstable and threatening Commendatore.

Of the three women, Mojca Erdmann was a stylish Zerlina. She certainly has the technique to sing Mozart, however her character portrayal of the wily peasant girl was a little flat. The highlight of her performance was “Vedrai carino.” It showcased her ability as an actress while at the same time making one wish the rest of her performance could have been as good. Marina Rebeka was a thrilling Donna Anna. The highlight of her performance was “Or sai che l’onore.” It is customary to portray Donna Anna as a strong character, only limited by the accident of being born a woman. However, here she didn’t just scold Don Ottavio. Had the aria been longer, she might have eaten him alive.

giovanni erdmann bloom_3067.pngMojca Erdmann as Zerlina and Joshua Bloom as Masetto

The crowning achievement of this performance was Barbara Frittoli. For better or worse, she became the focal point of the opera. She took a well-known facet of the character, her ambivalent mix of revulsion and love for Giovanni, and explored it to the utmost degree. Unlike other Elviras, who between acts one and two seem to magically change from loathing to adoration for the Don, both facets of her character were present from the beginning.

Critics have maligned this production for its set, which consists of a wall of decrepit-looking shuttered balconies. They scoff at its so-called “Advent calendar” design. In my opinion, the design is not the flaw here. What is an issue is the blocking. Throughout the opera, certain characters on the ground interact with those standing on balconies. This creates an uncomfortable lack of chemistry in an opera that is supposed to sizzle with eroticism. Yet even when all the characters are standing together on the ground, there was confusion in their interactions. For instance, Donna Anna was not present for Don Ottavio’s rendition of “Il mio Tesoro.” As a consequence, Mr. Vargas had to sing of his love for Donna Anna to everyone else but Donna Anna.

Instead, Mr. Vargas focused on Donna Elvira. While this strengthened the idea that Elvira is engaged in a neverending search for love, this directorial faux pas made me wonder if Elvira was really the title character of this production. There were some instances of genius. Don Giovanni removed Zerlina’s veil just before “La ci darem la mano.” A subconscious nod toward his desire to take her virginity, perhaps? Also, Elvira was ravished on the dining room table by a Giovanni who was literally blinded to fate during his last meal on Earth.

GIOVANNI-Pisaroni-Frittoli.pngLuca Pisaroni as Leporello, Barbara Frittoli as Donna Elvira, Ramón Vargas as Don Ottavio, Peter Mattei as Don Giovanni, and Marina Rebeka as Donna Anna

However, such inspiration was fleeting. At the end, when all the characters sing of their need to put their lives back in order, I was left wondering, “Was there any real threat to begin with?” The desire to reinvigorate the public’s interest in opera with ubertheatrical productions is a noble endeavor, but if the performance doesn’t at least acknowledge what originally excited the composer, how can we be sure a modern day public will be interested?

Gregory Moomjy

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