When discussing last season’s new production of Don Giovanni which premiered at The Met in October 2011, director Michael Grandage said that several members of the audience would be seeing the opera for the first time. Grandage felt that a straightforward production set in the period is the best choice for them. However, Don Giovanni is not an opera that plays itself. Audiences are too sophisticated today to be satisfied with a mere straightforward concert in period costume approach. Da Ponte’s episodic libretto has to be animated from within, guided by some sort of concept or we just have a series of disjointed events ending in hellfire (quite realistic in this production – you actually feel flashes of heat on your face from three quarters of the way back in the orchestra!).
Mozart’s dramma giocoso has had three new Metropolitan Opera productions since the retirement of the old Graf/Berman production in the eighties. All three have been failures in different ways. The 1990 Zeffirelli production was visually handsome if overly ornate but like Grandage had a near total lack of ideas about the opera. Zeffirelli was content to simply parade the protagonists in front of the elaborate scenery like guests at a fancy dress ball. Marthe Keller’s production was visually utilitarian - one colleague described it as resembling a brick brewery - but she had a certain command of Personenregie. Grandage’s production is a kind of visual and dramaturgical black hole that sucks the life out of the most talented cast. A promising cast – in fact stronger overall than the premiere cast last year – wandered through a dark, lifeless void at the revival premiere on 28th November.
Christopher Oram’s towering unit set is yet another example of the Met’s current house style - dubbed “the Advent calendar” or “Hollywood Squares” school of set design. (John Doyle’s Peter Grimes and Robert Lepage’s La damnation de Faust provide other examples) The moveable building facades with multi-tiered rows of fashionably distressed louvered doors and balconies in peeling beige and pastel paint resemble a dilapidated flophouse in the French quarter of New Orleans. When the downstage set is shuffled off into the wings the audience is treated to yet another upstage set of identical shuttered doors and balconies. All the action plays downstage where not much happens except entrances and exits with occasional appearances on the upper balconies. There is a constant flatness as you basically watch people move from left to right or line up in a row downstage during the big ensembles. (The HD experience was quite different – the camera work broke up the playing area showing the action from various angles alternating close-ups and long-shots). The original production sketches for this Don Giovanni were used as promotional materials last year - it looked like a dud even in the preliminary stages.
Newcomer Louisa Muller is credited as the stage director for this revival and, unlike Lesley Koenig, she has been content to follow Grandage’s original game plan. Certain moments still defeat the cast. In earlier traditional productions, Leporello in Act II during his nocturnal impersonation of his master is disguised with his master’s cape and large feathered hat. Grandage leaves Leporello undisguised - bare-headed and dressed in the Don’s silk coat. How could Donna Elvira fail to recognize that this is Leporello on a moderately well-lit stage? One wondered if she was blind or not quite right in the head. This was particularly egregious last season when the 6’4” giant Peter Mattei subbing as Giovanni and the 5’10” compact-framed Luca Pisaroni as his servant had to impersonate each other. The lack of disguise worked somewhat better with Pisaroni and the original Don, Mariusz Kwiecien, who were about the same size and build but the credibility problem arose again this season. Ildar Abdrazakov is a huge bear of a man, well over six feet with a distinctive physiognomy who could never be impersonated by the muscular but less imposing Erwin Schrott. Schrott kept shielding his face with his hand and turning away from Elvira but this failed to make the deception convincing.
Interestingly, Abdrazakov and Schrott had performed Don Giovanni together before – for one performance in the Keller production on October 14, 2008 - except that Schrott was the Don on that occasion and Abdrazakov had one performance as Leporello. Don Giovanni, like the title role of Carmen is a demanding role in that the protagonist has to embody the driving force and fatal power of eros. Just as many beautiful, vocally attractive mezzos have failed to convince as Carmen, lots of nice-looking baritones and basses have missed the mark as Giovanni. Either you have the animal magnetism or you don’t. Ildar Abdrazakov recently got rave reviews for his first Dons in Washington, DC in Stephen Wadsworth’s production and would seem to be a natural for the part - the animal magnetism, sexual charisma and strong stage presence are all there. But like Peter Mattei, who was triumphant as the Don in revivals of the Zeffirelli and Keller productions, the Grandage production turned Abdrazakov into a cipher in the role. He looked imposing, moved well but nothing seemed to be driving this doomed libertine either from within or without. His singing was smooth, dark and pleasant, if lacking in textual pointing. His agility in the “Finch’han del vino” aria was a bit rough-edged for a former bel canto specialist and Pesaro veteran. Schrott is not the world’s most finished or refined vocalist but he is a stage animal who has to do something onstage. In Act II’s masquerade, when acting as a ventriloquist’s dummy miming Giovanni’s flattering pleas to the deceived Elvira, Schrott did a hilarious routine. He mimicked the stock hand gestures that neophyte opera singers do when attempting to act while singing – literally semaphoring the text in a half-hearted awkward manner. This was a creative solution and probably lifted from another, better production he had performed previously. His recitatives still had a loose improvised feel but seemed more disciplined by the musical architecture than previously. He was the audience favorite, as Pisaroni was last season.
Tenor Charles Castronovo returned to the Met in a leading role after a brief sojourn over a decade ago in comprimario roles. His warm lyric tenor had a nice dark, textured quality in the middle register while maintaining a smooth legato line in “Dalla sua pace”. The sound got a little grainier and more declamatory in Act II but he managed the runs in “Il mio tesoro” with expert breath control and exemplary phrasing. He seemed a mature, finished artist who cut a fine figure onstage and was well received by the audience. His wife Ekaterina Siurina returned to the Met after several years’ absence as Zerlina – her performance was unexceptionable but a major improvement over the vacuously acted, vocally impoverished performance of Mojca Erdmann last season. Her soprano has a lovely mix of silvery sheen and creamy legato and she is a good musician. In better surroundings she would sparkle with a brighter radiance. Susanna Phillips (Donna Anna) is being groomed by the Met for major assignments in future seasons. Unlike the high coloraturas or the Wagnerians of older casting traditions, the young Alabama-born soprano is a lush full lyric. Her tone is fresh and round with the bloom of youth and health. ‘Or sai chi l’onore’ was taken at nice clip without much expansion on top or dramatic breadth in the phrasing, there was no hint of harshness or forcing in the tone. ‘Non mi dir’ began with warm lyricism but the coloratura runs were gingerly attacked. Both arias showed a certain carefulness but she was radiantly lovely elsewhere – Donna Anna may be a role she will need to grow into over the years. Raymond Aceto’s grainy bass made a too earthbound and underwhelming impression as the Commendatore.
Three British artists performed onstage and in the pit – sadly all three were weak links. Emma Bell played Donna Elvira as a bossy, overbearing spinster with a testy disposition. Bell visually resembled the actress Patricia Routledge and soprano Dame Anne Evans in their youthful days and had much of their mettlesome, formidable spirit. However, her voice also sounded middle-aged – it spread and turned harsh under pressure. Runs creaked around the edges and she could not float the lyrical phrases. In the higher portions of ‘Mi tradi’ the tone boomed out imposingly. My feeling about Bell is that she is at a technical and career crossroads; the voice has gotten larger and seems unwieldy in Mozart but the harshness under pressure would negate the virtues of greater vocal size in the middleweight Italian and German repertoire. Bass David Soar was a bewildering import as Masetto – a role that in earlier periods was cast with house artists at the Met. Soar sounded grainy and smallish with a dull, ordinary timbre and faded into the background in ensembles. I think Soar will go the way of Jonathan Lemalu who debuted as Masetto in 2005 and came and went without leaving any impression behind him.
Rising young British maestro Edward Gardner left an indifferent impression from the overture on – he failed to inspire awe with the opening foreboding chords and the ostinato figures just ambled on. He failed to point up the musical contrast between the giocoso dancing string figures and the fateful rumbles in the woodwinds. Gardner provided motoric accompaniment of the singers and during the Act I extended finale he failed to coordinate the onstage musicians and those in the pit. It wasn’t romantic nor was it buffa nor was it heroic, it was just kind of there. Lack of interpretive profile reigned onstage and in the pit.
Photographs © Marty Sohl