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Mariusz Kwiecien and Andriana Chuchman [Photo by Todd Rosenberg]
08 Oct 2014

A New Don Giovanni and Anniversary at Lyric Opera of Chicago

Lyric Opera of Chicago opened its sixtieth anniversary season with a new production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni directed by Artistic Director of the Goodman Theater, Robert Falls.

A New Don Giovanni and Anniversary at Lyric Opera of Chicago

A review by Salvatore Calomino

Above: Mariusz Kwiecien and Andriana Chuchman [Photo by Todd Rosenberg]

 

The cast features Mariusz Kwiecień as Don Giovanni, Kyle Ketelsen as his servant Leporello, Marina Rebeka and Antonio Poli as Donna Anna and Don Ottavio, Ana María Martínez as Donna Elvira, Andriana Chuchman and Michael Sumuel as Zerlina and Masetto, and Andrea Silvestrelli as the Commendatore. Ms. Chuchman sings her first Zerlinas in these performances and Mr. Sumuel makes his debut at Lyric Opera of Chicago. Sir Andrew Davis conducts the Lyric Opera Orchestra and Michael Black is Lyric Opera’s Chorus Master.

The updating of the action in Don Giovanni to the 1920s for this production is suggested more directly by props, costumes, and isolated movements than by sets which, for the most part, communicate a vaguely Spanish setting. To be sure, nods to a modern setting exist in a neon sign indicating a bar in the vicinity of an ubiquitous pension. Yet the country folk appearing in traditional costume underlines the longevity of Spanish tradition lingering into the twentieth century.

During the opening scene Mr. Ketelsen’s Leporello laments his thankless position. As he describes the task of guarding his profligate master’s safety, Ketelsen’s weary devotion is traced with lyrical embellishments gliding downward on “far la sentinella.” At the entrance of the womanizer and his current conquest Mr. Kwiecień and Ms. Rebeka act out their conflict with the aid of individualized props: Don Giovanni guards his identity now with a white mask while this Donna Anna refuses to cede her hold on the beloved “Scellerato” [“scoundrel”] to whom she remains linked by means of a suggestive handcuff. Both Kwiecień and Rebeka show dramatic commitment in their vocal projection until Donna Anna’s father intercedes. Mr. Silvestrelli throws himself with outrage into the fray. As the first of a number of modifications in this production’s use of weaponry, the commendatore is killed, at some distance, by the shot from a pistol, rather than the blow from a sword during a fight. Leporello’s shock and continued subservience is well delineated here when Ketelsen epitomizes fear in response to Giovanni with the telling intonation of “non parlo piu” [“I shall say no more”]. Upon Ms. Rebeka’s return to the stage when joined by Mr. Poli, both modulate their voices to match in a unified oath of vengeance while forte notes were inserted now to excellent effect. At the close of their duet each character displays a hand covered with the blood of the commendatore as a seal to Ottavio’s statement “Lo giuro” [“I swear it”].

The introduction of Donna Elvira in the following sequence brings a further touch of the modern as Ms. Martínez steps out of the side-car of a double-seated motorized cycle. In her eloquent delivery of Donna Elvira’s impassioned aria, “Ah! chi mi dice mai” [“Ah! Who is there who will tell me!“] Martínez strikes a pose of defiance as she tosses her head and strides about in her cycling trousers. She draws on a full vocal range demonstrating a fluid rise to the emphatic high pitch at the close of the line, “Gli vo’ cavar il cor” [“I shall tear out his heart”]. After Leporello aids Giovanni in his escape from Donna Elvira’s accusations, he sings the virtuoso catalogue aria. In this production Ketelsen holds a small volume in which are inscribed names of his master’s conquests along with place of origin. Given the understated dramatic symbol here of the book, the effect of the music must be communicated through voice and gesture. Not only does Ketelsen move and act in dapper fashion, as a match to his stylish period clothing, but he also invests the piece with rich tone and practiced legato. The servant’s own involvement in maintaining the “lista” is carefully intoned just as Ketelsen’s high pitches on the repeat of “Voi sapete” [“You well know”] round out nicely the confrontation with Elvira.

The subsequent scene of a bucolic setting close to Don Giovanni’s mansion introduces the remaining soloists and the choral participants in this production. Zerlina and Masetto sing individually and in duet of their emotional happiness and impending marriage. Ms. Chuchman’s bright soprano is especially well suited to this role throughout the opera; Mr. Sumuel allows his resonant projection to emphasize distinctive, brusque aspects of Masetto’s personality. The arrival of Don Giovanni and Leporello leads to the disruption of harmony and is acted here in swift motions until Masetto is spirited away by the servant. The performance of “La chi darem la mano” [“There you will give me your hand”] between the Don and Zerlina highlights both Kwiecień’s stylish piano singing and his seemingly breathless stream of seductive words. Chuchman in turn responds with pointed top notes and lovely, spirited embellishments especially toward the close of the duet. Elvira’s interruption of this seduction with her renewal of emotional appeals coincides with the entrance of Donna Anna and Ottavio who, paradoxically, elicit the assistance of Don Giovanni to find the murderer. In the following quartet Kwiecień’s voice is striking in its extended lines and his final dramatic characterization of Elvira as “Infelice.” The succession of solo pieces following Giovanni’s brief departure advances the emotional and personal determination of the principals. Ms. Rebeka’s declamation before her aria, ”Or sai chi l’onore” [“Now you know who (tried) my honor”], enhances her excited aural recognition of Don Giovanni as the killer. Forte notes were then mirrored on “traditore” in the aria proper with a rising melisma of encouragement on “giusto furor” [“well-founded anger”]. Mr. Poli’s performance of the response delivered by Don Ottavio is no less effective. In “Dalla sua pace” [“Upon her peace of mind”] Poli was securely on pitch in “morte mi da” [“gives me death”], and he introduces appogiaturas at significant moments in the text. The following “Finch’ han dal vino” [“Now that the wine”], the famous “champagne aria,” is integrated into Don Giovanni’s rakish personality rather than having the piece staged with the Don alone musing on his past and potential future. Here Kwiecień was pawed by several eager, unnamed women as he tossed off the rapid lines of the aria. The final solo contribution before the finale of Act One is perhaps the most traditionally staged of this production. In Zerlina’s “Batti, batti” [“Beat me, beat me”] she truly here sings back the devotion of Masetto. Chuchman’s acting and singing showed her exquisite skills as a performer of Mozart: a smooth, crystal line, decorations suited to her voice, and gestures fulfilling the import of the music. As a preparation for the finale, the nobles “in maschera” enter; Leporello sees them from the balcony of Don Giovani’s villa and invites them to attend the soiree inside. After some initial imbalances, the vocal music of the noble guests with host and servant, against the backdrop of repeated dance rhythms, functioned well in this production. Martínez and Rebeka contributed significantly to the ensemble, just as Don Giovanni maneuvers Zerlina offstage during the dance. The interplay between Don Giovanni and Leporello in the final moments is cleverly staged so that Kwiecień assumes a final swaggering pose before escaping.

The second act in this production remains as consistently satisfying vocally as the first, with the addition of several dramatically interpretive ploys. Don Giovanni’s own masquerade, in which he coaches Leporello to impersonate him in a romantic dialogue with Elvira, is here convincing and at once amusing. When left alone to serenade Elvira’s maid, Kwiecień’s performance of “Deh vieni alla finestra” [“Come to the window”] stands out as his most lyrically sustained moment in the performance. With high notes pushed forward to indicate the urgency of his appeal and embellishments punctuating the vocal line, the performance of this aria by Kwiecień is a lesson in song.

Leporello’s identity is recognized in the following scene when he is confronted by Donna Anna, Don Ottavio and the country pair. After Leporello begs for mercy, Ottavio asks the others to guard Donna Anna while he secures help from the authorities. Poli’s rendition of “Il mio tesoro” [“My treasure”] with rising tones on “andate” and “cercate” has the effect of a graceful gentleman determined to assure the reputation of his beloved. The emphases at “nunzio vogl’io tornar” [“I shall not return”] make the aria even more believable. In the following “Mi tradì” [“He betrayed me”] of Donna Elvira the same devotion is signaled by Martínez with excellent phrasing, yet the tempo here is nearly too rapid for the aria to have its desired effect. In the final solo aria of this act, Donna Anna’s “Non mi dir” [“Do not tell me”] Rebeka makes a strong impression by introducing vocal color and decoration to suggest a transformed character as both daughter and lover. Rebeka’s scales and embellishments in the second part of the aria provided a cap to her yearning appeal directed at Don Ottavio.

In the final scene of retribution Don Giovanni’s demise is far from unjustified. The pistol returns as a prop when Giovanni scorns Elvira’s final appeals. After he hurls food at her from the banquet table, Martínez shoots him before yielding the final judgment to the statua of the Commendatore. Don Giovanni’s descent into hell is ingeniously staged yet the music and vocal treasures in this production emerge as equally memorable.

Salvatore Calomino

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