Don Giovanni at the Met

The Met has rounded up a good cast for this Don Giovanni premiere, particularly stellar late replacements Fabio Luisi conducting and Peter Mattei in the title role. It’s a shame that despite a lot of excellent singing the evening rarely rose above lukewarm. Michael Grandage’s fearsomely homogenizing and tame production bulldozed any personality in its path.

Mozart/Da Ponte, Don Giovanni. Metropolitan Opera, 10/13/11. New production premiere, directed by Michael Grandage and conducted by Fabio Luisi with Peter Mattei (Don Giovanni), Luca Pisaroni (Leporello), Marina Rebeka (Donna Anna), Barbara Frittoli (Donna Elvira), Ramón Vargas (Don Ottavio), Mojca Erdmann (Zerlina), Joshua Bloom (Masetto), Stefan Kocan (Commendatore).

Based on this and Anna Bolena, the new Met house staging style seems to be “no interpretation allowed.” More on that in a second, let’s start with the interesting and positive part–the music. New principal conductor and Levine stand-in Fabio Luisi led an elegant and clean account of the score, with fast to moderately fast tempos and light textures. He has a fantastic sense of dramatic pace and is never obtrusively showy or different. Everything flowed along as it should. He played the harpsichord continuo himself (the first time I’ve seen a non-HIP conductor do that, I think) and was witty and well-timed without ever straying towards René Jacobs’s sports commentator fortepiano territory. He passed my Don Giovanni conductor test–how is the timing in the Act 2 sextet?–with flying colors.

The cast was almost universally strong, and well-cast for vocal size, projecting without sounding oversized. Peter Mattei’s velvety baritone is the most seductive characteristic of his Giovanni, who otherwise tends towards the aggressive and dangerous. But it is a very sexy voice, and his serenade was a highlight, simple (with tasteful ornamentation in the second strophe) and quiet. He also managed an unusually accurate “Fin ch’han la vino.”

My last impression of Luca Pisaroni was in the Wiener Staatsoper’s Nozze di Figaro, but no singer should be held accountable for that particular production. He was a delight as Leporello, funny and spontaneous in the recitatives and musical and smooth in the big aria. It is nice to see Ramón Vargas back in Mozart as Don Ottavio after his dubious attempts at heavier rep. There was palpable effort in his “Dalla sua pace” messa di voce, but he sounded sweet and clear and the coloratura in “Il mio tesoro” was long-breathed and impressively clean. Stefan Kocan was an undersized Commendatore and Joshua Bloom an excellent Masetto.

Rebeka and Vargas

The women were led by house debutant Marina Rebeka as Donna Anna (like 60% of singers these days, she is Latvian). Her cool, somewhat steely and white soprano isn’t naturally glamorous, but everything was evenly produced, elegantly musical, and solid, including her coloratura. She’s quite loud and tended to dominate the ensembles. Barbara Frittoli’s much warmer and richer-voiced Elvira was an excellent contrast to Rebeka. Her top notes often turned wobbly but I appreciated her refinement. The cast’s weak link was Mojca Erdmann’s Zerlina, whose fragile, very small soprano awkwardly shifted between a straight silvery tone and an excess of vibrato. Her phrasing was inexpressive.

But despite the good performances, no one gave a true star turn. Zachary Woolfe’s “charisma” and JJ’s “glamour” were both in short supply. The extraordinarily bland production may be to blame. If you gave any opera buff or stage manager this set and these costumes and told them to produce the most conventional Don Giovanni they could imagine, they’d probably come up with something like it. The Personenregie is detailed and not that bad, meaning that it’s clear and it’s not static. Mattei and Pisaroni are strong actors, Vargas and Rebeka less so. But Grandage has no perspective on a work that really demands interpretative unpacking. Don Giovanni is a weird, fascinating, confusing, contradictory opera, it’s a black hole of mystery, but no personality at all emerges from these harmless characters. They all seem to lack individuality and soul. It’s a smoothly executed job, but there’s nothing beneath the surface, and fails to draw you in emotionally.

Christopher Oram’s set has multiple levels of balconies and lots of little doors. This is a look we’ve seen before at the Met and it’s not one I like. The tiny space at each balcony doesn’t allow for much action, and Donna Anna and Don Giovanni’s confrontation at the beginning of the opera (something I care about a lot) was so constricted in space that you couldn’t tell what was being expressed. (I was gratified that she did not seem to like him very much, though.) The walls move around a bit, creating some variety, but it’s basically a unit set. The costumes, also by Oram, are basic frilly 18th century, with a side of our favorite (meaning least favorite) time period, the Slutty 18th Century, when even Donna Anna’s mourning dress displays lots of cleavage.

Ben Wright’s choreography is rather busy and fills the stage during Zerlina’s wedding and the first act finale, but it seems to function solely as a space filler. Grandage surrounds Giovanni with some downmarket ladies of the night in the last scene, hardly as daring a move as giving them to Scarpia but still the most originality to be found here. The final scene is a conflation of an anticlimactic Darth Vader entrance by the Commendatore and the Fire Swamp scene from The Princess Bride (minus the ROUSes, unfortunately). After a lot of am dram shaking, some hellfire does start up, but it’s too little, too late.

Despite the musical accomplishment, this was an unfulfilling evening. Unlike Jean-Louis Martinoty’s recent Wiener Staatsoper train wreck, it is not a confusing or incompetent Don, just an empty one with a discouraging lack of intellectual curiosity. Very disappointing.

Photos copyright Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera (special thanks to @PaulCavaradossi)

Curtain Call (photos courtesy of B., who unlike me had a camera and was on the orchestra level):

Video: Peter Mattei sings “Da vieni alla finestra” in a different production.

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  1. Now I know what those bizarre flame-puffs reminded me of, and I want to watch The Princess Bride again. I would have thought that Don Giovanni would present an irresistible challenge for interpretation to any director… strange. I'm disappointed to hear that the initial interaction with Donna Anna was so unclear; I thought my seat on the other side of the house was to blame for that. Sigh.

  2. Great review Zerb! I might go see this on Monday, but i have to admit that somewhere in the middle of Act 2 I always lose interest in Don G. It happens every single time. By the time the moralizing epilogue happens I'm asleep.

  3. Lucy, I was on the same side as the opening scene action, though my seat was pretty high up in the house. She WAS struggling, it was just very implausible that she didn't actually manage to get away at a few points if she really wanted to. Lord knows.

    Ivy, I know what you mean. The plot just stops dead. After the sextet it's a checklist of people sweeping on and off with seemingly little connecting the episodes. Even though every single big number from the sextet on is a total masterpiece musically speaking, it can be hard to stay interested.