Der Rosenkavalier at the Met

That’s no silver rose, that’s a whole silver rose shrub.

The Met’s new Rosenkavalier is a pleasant surprise. It’s good and you should see it, but maybe not for the reasons you expect.

While much heralded as Renée Fleming’s farewell to the operatic stage, she’s not its primary attraction. She’s fine and deserves a nice send-off for a distinguished career, but she is too pallid to be this production’s star. Yet the Met has, seemingly accidentally, ended up with something way more interesting and harder to achieve than a Marschallin showcase. Robert Carsen’s production is a creative and coherent interpretation of a piece which is often more exhumed than directed, and the Met has found something I didn’t even know existed: Günther Groissböck’s actually good take on Baron Ochs.

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Pearls fished

Georges Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers (Les pêcheurs de perles) premiered in Paris in 1863, a full decade before Carmen. Its exotic Indian subcontinent plot, complete with undulating melismas, a chaste coloratura priestess and a disapproving elder priest, inevitably recalls another opera that premiered in Paris exactly twenty years later, Léo Delibes’s Lakmé (which I saw at Opera Holland Park last summer).

For modern listeners, Lakmé and Pearl Fishers have another thing in common: they’re both somewhat obscure operas with one or two extremely popular hit numbers. For Lakmé, it’s the Bell Song and Flower Duet, for Pearl Fishers it’s the tenor-baritone duet in which two reunited buddies–one a baritone head pearl fisher, the other a tenor of vague provenance–displace any more-than-buddy feelings by singing about a beautiful, absent woman (seriously, this duet occupies Don Carlo/Posa territory of subtext).

Bizet obviously knew that he found the big hit with this duet. Its main theme is associated with absent lady Léila, who is the female part of the plot’s love triangle and isn’t absent for much longer (like Mr. Tenor in the beginning of this opera, people in The Pearl Fishers have a way of showing up exactly when they are required). This association means we get to hear it plenty more times, though usually in the orchestra. You get your money’s worth with that duet.

Unfortunately in the rest of the opera you can see why the Met hasn’t performed this one for a century. The Met’s new production showcases a score with many beautiful moments beyond the duet, but the opera itself comes across as clunky and without any emotional weight. Penny Woolcock’s production is better than I expected having read its London reviews (it was first performed at the English National Opera several years ago), but it and a somewhat mismatched cast don’t really make a convincing argument for this piece. There are worse ways to pass an evening, but it’s underwhelming. Here, I’m going to try to figure out why I thought this.

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All the ladies are doing it

I rolled my eyes a little bit when James Levine was recently described in the Times as “somebody who may be the greatest opera conductor in history.” But after last night’s Così, the fourth performance in his triumphant return to the Met, I can at least understand the thinking behind it (though I still don’t agree). He’s an institution here, and Mozart at the Met hasn’t sounded anywhere near this good in years. It was impeccably clear, energetic, and paced, imbued with an air and light that no one else gets out of the Met orchestra. Everything is phrased and shaped, and yet it all sounds spontaneous and fresh.

The rest of the performance bore the signature of some of the less happy legacies of the Levine era: a boring production and singing that was fine but not quite star quality. The production is particularly egregious. Leslie Koenig’s 1996 staging is cartoonish, unsubtle, and offers much unfunny comic business, making a very poor contrast to the sublimity of the music. It flattens this ambiguous, intense libretto to its lowest common rom-com denominator. (Such a seemingly low opinion of the libretto has a venerable history in Così reception, but this sort of staging seems to proceed from an a priori assumption of triviality, and never constructs a coherent relationship with the overqualified score.)

It’s also just bad theater. The look is traditional, and the blocking in the first act frequently mirrors both the sisters and the men–problematic, I think, for a production already short on dramatic differentiation. Its brand of comedy involves having the Albanians spend an awful lot of time twirling their robes around. One great thing about Da Ponte’s libretti is how they always begin in media res. But while the men are obviously in the midst of a heated conversation when the curtain rises, here they lounge still and wordless for the whole introduction.

(I’m sorry to sound like a broken record here, but you have 70-some days left to watch the Michael Haneke production of Così on the Arte website, and if you haven’t yet, go do it now because you owe it to yourself. It’s a brutal and chilly take on an opera that I’ve (as you may have surmised) never found very funny.)

The cast offered some lovely moments, but none overshadowed the conducting, quite. Fiordiligi is a fiendishly difficult role and Susanna Philips handled many of the technical challenges with aplomb and a silvery soprano. But she isn’t a natural comedian or a big personality, and lacks the bravura to make “Come scoglio” really take off. Where she excelled was “Per pietà” and onwards, where she traced Fiordiligi’s descent with simplicity and honesty. Maybe she’s just more of a Mimì type. As her sister, Isabel Leonard was not impressive, sounding rather vinegary and showing little in the way of stage presence.

As Despina, Danielle De Niese had the most acting sparkle in the cast, but didn’t have much to play off against, and the performance ended up seeming a bit effortful. Her singing tended towards the raw and more Mozartean elegance would have been nice, but Despina’s music isn’t “Dove sono.” She was certainly a brighter presence than Maurizio Muraro was as Don Alfonso, who started off as a low energy Dulcamara and went downhill from there. This is a plum role and not difficult to cast, why not find someone with a little more wit?

The other men were much better. Matthew Polenzani remains a superb Mozart tenor with sweet tone and great musicality, and did the most glamorous singing of the evening. He can actually make “Ah! lo veggio” sound like the walk in the park that, in the libretto, it literally is. Rodion Pogorossov was a fine Gugliemo and almost funny, though this role always seems to have drawn the short straw.

Despite great unevenness, the conducting alone was enough to make this a gratifying performance, and I recommend you go if you can.

Mozart, Così fan tutte, Metropolitan Opera, 10/5/2013.

Photos copyright Marty Sohl/Met.

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Maria Stuarda loses her head on the eve of 2013

“I had a dream my gala would be/So different from this pilgrim dress I’m wearing…”

One of the less-noted trends of the Peter Gelb era has been the renaissance of bel canto (and bel canto-adjacent) opera at the Met. So far we have had new productions of Anna Bolena, L’elisir d’amore, La fille du régiment, Lucia di Lammermoor, La sonnambula, Armida, Il barbiere di Siviglia, and Le Comte Ory (as well as Don Pasquale just before Gelb’s regime began). To this list you can now add Maria Stuarda, the middle installment of a Donizetti “Queens” trilogy directed by David McVicar. (This began with Bolena last season, the final entry will be Roberto Devereux, reportedly featuring Sondra Radvonovsky next season.)

I think bel canto has proven compatible with two of Gelb’s artistic priorities: star casting and slick but literal-minded storytelling (the latter often in the guise of “accessibility”). Most of these productions have been sold on the fame of their casts. Many of the operas themselves have colorful settings and no obvious complicating social or metaphysical angles (Mary Zimmerman’s high-concept Sonnambula was an exception in this regard). They are primarily showpieces. But for this rep to be anything more than routine and mundane you need real star quality singing and charisma. Unfortunately only a few of these productions have found the people capable of that.

Maria Stuarda is OK, but there’s still a certain fire missing.

Donizetti, Maria Stuarda. Metropolitan Opera, 12/31/2012. New production premiere directed by David McVicar with sets and costumes by John Macfarlane, lights by Jennifer Tipton, and choreography by Leah Hausman, conducted by Maurizio Benini with Joyce DiDonato (Maria Stuarda), Elza van den Heever (Elisabetta), Matthew Rose (Talbot), Joshua Hopkins (Cecil), Maria Zifchak (Anna).

I guess you have to give David McVicar some credit. Unlike quite a few Met directors, he definitely knows what he is doing and rarely produces the giant “WTF?” moments many other recent stagings have induced. But he hasn’t been very inspired recently, either, and this production is no exception.

McVicar’s Maria Stuarda production is more colorful and flashy than last year’s Anna Bolena, but otherwise similar. The costumes are exaggerated period with some tweaks of design and color, the sets minimal and austere. (Both are designed by John Macfarlane.) We open with a big old party, a convenient place for McVicar to stick his compulsory acrobats. But almost everyone is wearing pure white, which cuts down on the bacchanalia factor.

The rest of the evening is less busy, with about one striking thing per scene while the rest is by the book. Queen E wears a wide red skirt that opens like curtains to reveal pants (performing masculinity oh so subtly) while her rival Maria Stuarda (Mary Queen of Scots) and her cohort dress in plain black. There are a few strong images: the tiny windows of Mary’s prison, the backdrop filling with the orders she wrote when she was queen, and her sad end, in which she reveals a red dress for her final ascent to a giant executioner. (This executioner is, by the way, fully clothed–where is the McVicar of yore?)

McVicar and the cast create a stark contrast between serious, gracious, and feminine Maria and cranky, assertive Elizabeth, the latter adopting a lurching gait and little royal dignity. (I don’t remember the opera’s Schiller source, which I saw in an excellent Donmar Warehouse production a few years ago, as nearly this unsubtle.) Maria is meant to excite the most sympathy, but is shorted on exposition and backstory, and in this production rarely appears more than mildly perturbed. Elisabetta is a far more interesting character, and here developed much more vividly. She has a country to run and alliances to make. Who really cares for this plain imprisoned lady who only occasionally works up a decent curse?

The production is, as a backdrop, perfectly OK. It would be fine as a frame for brilliant and passionate performances. Unfortunately we didn’t really get those and it remains kind of weak sauce. Both ladies are miscast and neither projected on the grand scale required.

This was conceived as a vehicle for Joyce DiDonato. While the role of Maria Stuarda is usually sung by a soprano, some transposition makes it workable for her mezzo. There’s a long history of this kind of transposition, I don’t object (though in the final scene having a true soprano floating above is more effective), but DiDonato just doesn’t seem right even when it has been lowered. While she sings the notes with exemplary musicality, expression, and taste, her sound is more thin than plush, which in this kind of thing is a problem. Under pressure her tone acquires a pronounced bleaty vibrato, at soft dynamics the vibrato disappears entirely. And her intonation is (or was in this performance, at least) highly problematic, tending flat towards the ends of phrases and in cadenzas wavering all over the place. Sometimes she caught it and corrected but I found it a constant distraction preventing me from ever becoming immersed in her performance.

I wasn’t terribly convinced by her acting, either, which seemed too mild to play up to me in the Family Circle. A few big moments–that curse–were staged as Dramatic Actions, but then her voice didn’t really back her up. Maybe it was more convincing closer up, but she never convinced me of her star-ness. I’m sorry to pile on but these are pretty serious issues for a major singer in a new production.

Elza van den Heever gives a striking performance as Elisabetta, with a variety of impressive costumes, but her hip-swaying is more Judi Dench as Queen Elizabeth than it is Cate Blanchett as Queen Elizabeth. I did appreciate her spirit, though, and she takes far greater dramatic risks than DiDonato appears to. Her voice lacks the sheer tonal beauty and evenness between registers to be ideal for this repertoire, and has a very prominent vibrato. But it’s certainly an interesting and compelling instrument, very powerful at the top and well-controlled (impressive coloratura for such a large voice), and it will be interesting to see how she develops (possibly in a Wagner-Strauss sort of direction?).

Matthew Polenzani is better as Leicester than he was as Nemorino in the fall. He is vocally impeccable, with a far wider tonal palette than either of the ladies, and the voice is just the right size. The older, more established Leicester is a better fit for his personality and age than goofy young Nemorino was. But the role is basically standard tenor posturing, and he never really got a big star moment. The supporting cast was competent but bland, with none sticking very strongly in my memory. The chorus, though, was fabulous, and made the music sound far better than it deserves to (bel canto choruses are, I must admit, a pet peeve of mine–so boring!), and Maurizio Benini’s conducting seemed perfectly fine to me, certainly better than his work in Elisir.

But there’s nothing here that holds a candle to Anna Netrebko in Anna Bolena. I’m sure it will satisfy Joyce DiDonato fans, because there is indeed a lot of Joyce DiDonato, but to me it was rarely more than middling. Since bel canto is not really my preferred variety of opera, my standards for enjoyment may be unduly high, but this one didn’t draw me in.

Maria Stuarda runs through January, with the inevitable HD broadcast on January 19.

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The Met’s new Mehlisir d’amore

Are you DELIGHTED yet?

For a repertory performance, this Elisir d’amore would not have been all bad. The singing is decent and the story happens, though the beats fall haphazardly. But this was a new production for the Met’s opening night, which requires confronting the reality that a lot of people thought that making this thing from scratch was a good idea, and put a lot of time, craft, and money into it.

The ideal seems to have been to create something as mainstream and inoffensive as possible. In practice, this means the production has all the appeal and originality of a suburban shopping mall (whose multiplex probably plays The Met Live in HD). There’s a ritual aspect to opera, particularly live performance. There are certain thrills we want to experience, together, over and over. But new productions are for, you know, new stuff, and to come up with something as cookie cutter as this you have to be really actively opposed to creativity.

In other news, I love you, Trebs, but stop kidding yourself.

Donizetti, L’elisir d’amore. Metropolitan Opera opening night, 9/24/2012. New production (premiere) directed by Bartlett Sher, sets by Michael Yeargan, costumes by Catherine Zuber, lights by Jennifer Tipton. Conducted by Maurizio Benini with Anna Netrebko (Adina), Matthew Polenzani (Nemorino), Mariusz Kwiecien (Belcore), Ambrogio Maestri (Dulcamara), Anne-Carolyn Bird (Giannetta)

L’elisir is a human comedy that has to find a way to balance sincere emotion with slapstick, and deal with the fact that its hero Nemorino is, well, not the sharpest tool in the shed. (I think this is why most productions keep the setting rural and full of peasants. Those country people are dumb!) This production preserves the traditional rustic Italian setting, though the set is blown up to almost Zeffirellian proportions. The stage is framed in a false proscenium that fulfills its promise to portray only a storybook—these are faultlessly clean and well-dressed peasants, with a generous touch of opera’s favorite time period, Slutty 18th and 19th Century (it’s like the 18th or 19th century, only with more cleavage). There seem to be both farm folks and town folks, but I couldn’t figure out why. Anna Netrebko’s Adina does wear a top hat, and an outfit with a red skirt and belt that led some people in front of me to conclude that she was “a gypsy” (sic).

Many of the sets are flat cutouts. The maze of buildings, wheat and many unidentified objects reads very badly from the bird’s eye view of the Family Circle, I can’t really tell you much more about what it looks like. (To paraphrase Mitt Romney, those trees are not the right height). But while the sets speak of Italy, the lighting plot is of Sweden in December. Gratuitous follow spots pop on and off randomly, and it always looks like sunset. I tried to figure out how much time was passing between scenes and what time of the day it was supposed to be, and I had to give up.

 Sher portrays Adina and Nemorino on close terms from the start, getting physically intimate with each other even before the elixir is involved. But it’s not consistent, and Sher prefers everyone to constantly run around and fall over a lot rather than anything genuinely emotional or constructing a convincing through-line. And since they started getting in each other’s faces, unless you have some detail there’s nowhere you can really go. (I was in the Family Circle, FWIW.) But for all the broadness there is little that is funny here. And if you’re going to make this a psychological drama you have come up with characterizations a little more distinctive than these. Belcore is not as over-the-top as usual but nor is he anything more than a guy who comes on and sings an aria. I guess you can choose to pass up comedy if you like, but to have such wonderful opportunities as Dulcamara’s aria, Nemorino opening the elixir bottle, and the gondola girl song pass with hardly a laugh makes the whole thing even more confusing and bland.

This may have been partially due to a certain lack of star wattage. Anna Netrebko is a treasure but has a hard time wrapping her increasingly big, dark voice around this light part. While the results were sometimes interesting, and the sound is pure gorgeous, her pitch went flat sometimes and this voice in this role is, despite her aggressively flirty acting, matronly. As for that top hat, I don’t know. It makes no sense, though it isn’t alone in that regard. The stage desperately needed lighting up, and she wasn’t quite enough to do it.

Based on Matthew Polenzani’s sound, you’d think he should be more famous than he is. But considering the whole performance his place seems, as cruel as this might sound, about right. He has lovely technique and smooth liquid tone, sounds Italianate enough, is musically tasteful, and can sing piano like nobody’s business. But he is completely, utterly lacking in charisma. (That only one of these photos features him is not my fault but rather the Met website’s. Maybe that means something.) Nemorino might not be a glamorous guy but he’s the hero and you have to be rooting for him. Polenzani is just this dude singing, and his dramatic ritardando at the end of “Una furtiva” was immaculate and accomplished yet empty.

Mariusz Kwiecien sang Belcore cleanly but sometimes has a bit of strain in his voice in the higher ranges. Ambrogio Maestri is a big man with a big voice and is very Italian and would thus seem ideal for Dulcamara, but despite booming it out just fine (with an excellent upper register) never seemed to have the personality to match his other attributes. Anne-Carolyn Bird’s Giannetta chorus scene was beautifully done, featuring several of the most elegantly shaped phrases of the night.

Maurizio Benini kept to the tradition that Elisir d’amore should only be conducted very, very badly (see my records on this—yeah, I like this opera and go see it a lot, we go back, Elisir and I, and for the record my production was cuter than this one and I still have the bottle of elixir sitting on my bookshelf). Coordination was faulty in the chorus preceding Dulcamara’s entrance, the tricky concertante that closes Act 1, and several other spots. In general Benini seemed content to let the singers do their thing and not make anything too exciting or dramatic.

Alas, this seems to have been everyone’s mission. Doing anything that hadn’t been done before doesn’t seem to have been on anyone’s mind. It’s less twee than most of Sher’s other work for the Met, but it’s slapdash, superficial, and hella boring. I think I’d actually prefer to see Otto Schenk’s Vienna production, which isn’t any more innovative but at least doesn’t bury its characters in sets and shadows. If opening night sets the tone for the rest of the year it’s going to be a long, long season.

On the way home I tried to think what would make me want to see this thing again and I came up with the following casts:
Marina Poplovskaya and Lance Ryan
Simone Kermes and Johan Botha
Nadja Michael and the sax/flute player from the subway
You might gather I think this production needs an infusion of weird energy. Putting together a certifiably insane HIP diva and an immobile Heldentenor might not be kind to Donizetti but it would sure be something different. Any further ideas?

Should you wish, this production is on for the next while and on HD later.
Photos copyright Ken Howard/Met Opera.

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The Met’s Traviata: She’s fallen and she can’t get up

The Met’s first revival of Willy Decker’s production of La traviata brought us the fragile charms of Natalie Dessay in the title role. Did she conquer the sofa that made Anna Netrebko (in Salzburg) a star?

Verdi, La Traviata. Met, 4/18/2012. Production by Willy Decker (revival), conducted by Fabio Luisi with Natalie Dessay (Violetta), Matthew Polenzani (Alfredo), Dmitri Hvorostovsky (Gérmont).

Since I was away last season, this was my first time seeing the production live, though I knew it from the famous Netrebko/Villazón Salzburg DVD. I like it very much and I can’t help but cheer to see Met people lined up around the block to see a production where a man in a dress and a mask suggestively rubs the minute hand of a giant clock, you know? It warms my heart. Also, it is just a really, really good staging.

Decker’s is a stylized, bleakly unsentimental interpretation, pared-down and extreme. It’s the opposite of the old Zeffirelli production, whose heavy upholstery tended to dampen any excessive displays of emotion and absorb even the most charismatic of singers. Here, Violetta is starkly isolated, her red dress the sole splotch of color among the anonymous hoards of men who pursue her. Maybe the giant clock counting down Violetta’s days and the hovering figure of Dr. Grenvil (AKA Death) aren’t subtle, but the imagery is striking and beautiful. (I’m not going to summarize it in any more detail because its virtues are, by this point, well known.) The staging requires real presence in this title role, and yet rewards a star Violetta in a way that Zeffirelli’s production never did.

Natalie Dessay was getting over something and by all accounts had a better outing last night than she did at previous performances during this run. She got off to a rough start, sounding tentative and having trouble staying with the inevitable Fabio Luisi and the orchestra. By “È strano,” she had stabilized. But her voice is still a thin and silvery thread, limited in its scope and color. Her only real variation is a breathy quality, which gets old quickly. Floaty high notes made the letter aria her best moment; the coloratura of “Sempre libera” was fast but not overly accurate. But in the ensembles and everyone’s favorite outburst, “Amami, Alfredo,” she came up well short in volume. (She did sing the high E-flat at the end of Act 1, and it was far too long and loud. I like this interpolation at times, but the fermata was way over the top.) She got to the ends of the phrases but rarely sounded more than wispy, and sometimes rhythm and phrasing, and even intonation, seemed slapdash.

Her acting was similar in tone, a damaged Violetta only barely making it through rather than the physically weak but psychically joyous interpretation Netrebko brought to this production. Netrebko’s voice spoke to Violetta’s strength of spirit, Dessay’s voice speaks to the decay of her body.

Maybe this is appropriate for Violetta. It’s a special and poignant kind of pathos when the failings of the singer become the failings of the character. (Begin theoretical digression:) Regular readers of Critical Inquiry may remember Carolyn Abbate’s article on analyzing opera in performance that used a similar incident as an example of a highly charged performative moment, namely the cracktacular Ben Heppner’s struggles to get through the Prize Song. His heroism to stand up in front of an audience while his vocal apparatus repeatedly failed him, according to this argument, sort of put the Helden- in Heldentenor.* Traviata is a little different: Violetta’s frailty and Dessay’s own weakness are complementary while Walther isn’t supposed to be struggling. But I don’t buy this argument. Poor Heps’s first few cracks might have been something special, but if they kept coming eventually a crack is just a crack, not a transformative performative act. An opera can have these moments, but it also has a narrative arc that extends through the evening. (End theoretical digression.) And a Violetta whose sole affect is fragility is too one-sided an interpretation to convince me. It’s a rich, complex character, and I found Dessay not varied enough.

Matthew Polenzani sang Alfredo wonderfully, with inventive phrasing and consistent beauty of tone. But acting-wise he’s awkward. This could work for the character (I’ve seen it done intentionally by others), but it’s a problem of this sort of production: it was originally designed for the more shameless and impetuous Rolando Villazón. Polenzani is obliged to follow this mode, and he wasn’t selling it.  As Papa Gérmont, Dmitri Hvorostovsky radiated stolid gravitas. Vocally, he has the range of about a fourth in his voice that sounds just spectacular, from around an A to a D at the top of the staff. Below that sounds growly and above it forced, but a lot of “Di Provenza” sits right in that velvety sweet spot and he has got the legato and it sounded wonderful. Unfortunately the duet with Violetta is a little lower, and didn’t sound as good.

Fabio Luisi conducted a self-indulgently slow prelude (as an old teacher of mine said, “you’re supposed to make them cry, not point out to them that they’re supposed to be crying”) but mostly kept the orchestra in line for Dessay, entertained Polenzani’s unusual staccato approach to the beginning of “De’ mei bollenti spiriti,” and was elsewhere not too sugary. The orchestra didn’t have any problems, and the chorus sounded fine with only a few mild coordination hiccups. The stage direction of said chorus is not quite as tight as it could be, but I’ve seen far worse.

Despite this less than completely convincing assumption of the title role, I’m still very glad I finally got to see this first-class production. Somehow I doubt the Met will ever be able to originate a production of a warhorse opera that is this of this quality, but I’m glad that it made it to New York eventually.

 La traviata continues through May 2.

*Yes, this is the same article I cited in both my Spring for Music entries. It’s going to be for me what Seamus is to Gail Collins.

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Don Giovanni in the Trees

A forest is a dangerous place: a symbol for the unknown and the unconscious, both the embrace and the threats of nature and a natural state. In fairy tales, characters enter the forest to find themselves, but they inevitably find peril as well.

In this 2008 Salzburg Festival production on DVD (Amazon), Claus Guth stages Don Giovanni in just such a forest, a group of pines that rotate on a turntable to disorienting effect. Is there a world outside of it? Sometimes mist rises threateningly in the background. But despite the presence of a bus stop and Don Ottavio’s car, there’s no exit. Don Giovanni and Leporello are a mortally wounded and drug-addled Vladimir and Estragon who are waiting for… something.

I needed an antidote to the Met’s empty Don Giovanni of a few weeks ago, and this production was perfect. I don’t agree with all of it, but it’s fascinating and very smartly done. The Commendatore seems to escape the duel OK, but Don Giovanni is mortally wounded and spends the rest of the opera dying; it’s never clear whether the rest of the events are actually happening or just his fervid memories or delusions. This twist plus the surreal setting mean there’s a fair amount of the plot that is not staged literally (the Serenade is sung out to the audience as a memory of seductions gone by, almost a mad scene), but this actually makes the episodic second act work unusually smoothly. The characters are modernized: Donna Anna is repressed housewife engaged to the useless yuppie Ottavio (yeah, this problem), Donna Elvira is a repressed businesswoman who is actually sex-crazed (kind of an ugly characterization, but  I can see how it comes out of the text). It’s dark and spooky–literally in terms of darkness–and the sextet at the end gets the axe. (It’s the Vienna version of the score, which means there’s the little Leporello-Zerlina duet but no Il mio tesoro and no final sextet. The cans of Pilsner Urquell may be an allusion to the opera’s Prague premiere, though.)

The main disappointment of the production is Bertrand de Billy’s bland conducting. He goes with HIP fleetness, but the Wiener Philharmoniker plays with so much vibrato that the pitch in the overture actually doesn’t seem quite stable somehow. Fortunately the cast can both sing really well and carry off the complex production convincingly. Christopher Maltman gives an intense performance in the title role, with the kind of magnetism required of a Don Giovanni and a beautiful, fairly light voice. Other vocal highlights are Dorothea Röschmann’s powerhouse Donna Elvira and Ekaterina Siurina’s impeccable Zerlina. Theatrically, Erwin Schrott’s Leporello carries the show. I’ve seen Schrott as the Don in several different productions (I’m not a particular fan but there were a few years when you basically couldn’t see a Don Giovanni without him in the title role), but I wonder if he isn’t actually better as Leporello. It suits his low voice better, and also his wit and comic timing (his Don was sometimes too funny). Anyway, here Leporello is going through some drug issues and it isn’t going well. The cast’s only major weakness is Annette Dasch as Donna Anna, whose squally tone and iffy intonation are tough on the ears, though she acts well. Matthew Polenzani is a well-sung but rather faceless Ottavio.


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