MET OPERA REVIEW
MET OPERA REVIEW; A Seducer In a Revival Of a Revival
By ANTHONY TOMMASINI
Published: December 30, 2002
When Franco Zeffirelli's production of Mozart's ''Don Giovanni'' was introduced at the Metropolitan Opera in 1990, the general assessment was that the sets were clunky and the staging clueless. Truth to tell, few officials at the company disagreed. Rather than tossing it out and staring over, the Met totally revamped the production to open the 2000-1 season.
Mr. Zeffirelli's sets, dominated by gigantic columns that awkwardly slid sideways and grim painted drops, were retained. But new lighting was devised, new costumes were designed, and the imaginative director Stephen Lawless, working with a superb cast headed by Bryn Terfel in the title role and Renée Fleming as Donna Anna, completely restaged the opera. With James Levine presiding from the pit, the revival was a triumph. It even looked great when broadcast later on public television.
When the Met concentrates talent and resources on a production so successfully, it's hard to recreate the achievement later with a different cast and conductor, however eminent. On Friday night the Met brought its ''Don Giovanni'' back, this time with the baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky, an acclaimed Don, singing the role for the first time at the house. Though the cast, with one exception, was admirable and the overall performance was effective, the performance lacked the intensity and focus that made the restaged production so special two years ago.
Mr. Hvorostovsky was the most elegant Don Giovanni imaginable. With his flowing white mane, lanky agility and subdued charisma, he was an unflappably aristocratic seducer. The alluring qualities of his voice, one of the most distinctive in opera, were there to marvel at: the silken-smooth legato phrasing, the tonal richness, the dusky colorings of his middle and lower ranges. When he sang the Don's serenade below Donna Elvira's balcony in Act II, he forgot all about his intended victim (Elvira's young maid) and turned his subtle charms directly on the audience. It worked. His singing was disarmingly sensual.
Mr. Hvorostovsky doesn't have an enormous sound, and he wisely knows better than to force it. Yet at times there was a curiously covered, almost muffled quality to his singing.
In the end his performance had too much elegance and too little menace. The dynamic, robust-voiced bass-baritone Richard Bernstein brought more danger and volatility to the role of Leporello, the Don's hapless servant. Perhaps the impact of Mr. Hvorostovsky's Don Giovanni would be greater in a smaller house.
Barbara Frittoli was a radiant Donna Anna. In recent years this fine Italian lyric soprano has been singing vocally weightier roles like Verdi's Luisa Miller and Leonora in ''Il Trovatore.'' Perhaps that explains the slightly rougher quality that has crept into her sound. Still, her singing was full-bodied, clear and expressive.
The tenor Michael Schade was a lyrically ardent Don Ottavio. The sweet-voice soprano Rebecca Evans and the promising young bass-baritone Oren Gradus, who displayed a husky voice and hardy stage presence, were charming as Zerlina and Masetto. The bass Eric Halfvarson made an imposing Commendatore.
As Donna Elvira, Carol Vaness had a rough night. As always, she gave an impassioned and committed performance. You sensed a clear musical intention behind every phrase. But Ms. Vaness, who began her career as a lovely lyric soprano, has been pushing her voice hard for many years in roles like Salome and Lady Macbeth, and her singing was marred by shrill tone and wobbling vibrato.
The French conductor Sylvain Cambreling, a respected figure in European opera, led a finely textured and vividly colored performance. Still it just did not match the lithe, incisive and vibrant account of the score that the Met orchestra delivered under Mr. Levine two seasons ago for the revamped revival.
The Met's recent revival of Jürgen Flimm's powerful production of Beethoven's ''Fidelio,'' another highlight of the 2000-1 season, was a similar letdown. But revivals of great productions don't always have to be disappointments, as the Met's current presentation of Poulenc's ''Dialogues des Carmélites'' makes clear. With an excellent, involved and mostly young cast, and James Conlon's inspired conducting, John Dexter's 1977 production is more stunning and pertinent than ever. With this ''Don Giovanni,'' though, the company is competing with memories of itself at its best.
Photo: Dmitri Hvorostovsky, foreground, and Eric Halfvarson in ''Don Giovanni.'' (Sara Krulwich/The New York Times)
Lately, the news has been filled with reports of privileged men, from star athletes to venerated comedians, using their power, in some cases their physical power, to seduce and control women. So, by comparison, the sex-fiend side of the charming Don Giovanni, the title character of Mozart’s most complex opera, can seem not so threatening.
Giovanni’s licentiousness can get lost amid opera’s conventions, especially this work’s opera buffa trappings.
That is especially the case with the British director Michael Grandage’s2011 production for the Metropolitan Opera, which returned on Wednesday night, featuring the dynamic baritone Peter Mattei in the title role, and Alan Gilbert conducting. Peter Gelb, the Met’s general manager, who has staked his reputation on bringing contemporary theatrical thinking to the company, has delivered some fresh and compelling new productions. Mr. Grandage’s tame “Don Giovanni,” with its period costumes and static, sliding three-tiered set, is not one of them.
But two modern, some would say radical, productions slip “Don Giovanni” into grim contemporary contexts: one by the Austrian film director Michael Haneke for the Paris National Opera, which I saw last month; the other by the ingenious Russian theater director Dmitri Tcherniakov for the Canadian Opera Company in Toronto, which I saw last week. Though very different, these productions compel you to think about how society flounders over dealing with consequential men who menace women.
Mr. Grandage’s staging is fluid and clear. There are some striking visual effects: Giovanni is dispatched to hell amid a near-inferno of shooting flames. And the cast was impressive overall. Mr. Gilbert, who, it was just announced, will step aside as music director of the New York Philharmonic in the summer of 2017, drew a richly detailed and shapely performance from the great Met orchestra. Still, if Mr. Grandage had anything new to say about this Mozart masterpiece, it did not come through in his essentially traditional production.
Five nights earlier, I had attended the Canadian Opera Company’s “Don Giovanni,” the North American premiere run of Mr. Tcherniakov’s staging, a coproduction with the Aix-en-Provence Festival, Teatro Real in Madrid and Bolshoi Theater in Moscow. Mr. Tcherniakov, who also designed the set and (with Elena Zaytseva) the costumes, presents “Don Giovanni” as the contemporary story of a rich, extended family living amid the baronial splendor of the Commendatore’s house. All of the action takes place in the wood-paneled sitting room of the mansion, its walls lined with books, and vases of flowers everywhere.
In a reading of the opera that some traditionalists may find a concept-driven distortion, Mr. Tcherniakov invents familial links between some of the characters, relationships made explicit in the program. In the libretto, Donna Elvira thinks herself Giovanni’s wife, asserting that he had “declared” her as such, only to abandon her cruelly. In this staging, Elvira is definitely his wife, an embittered woman who, while still obsessed with Giovanni, sees right through him.
And Donna Anna, the Commendatore’s daughter, who fights off the lecherous Giovanni in the opening scene, is here made Elvira’s cousin. Zerlina is no mere country lass, but Donna Anna’s impressionable daughter from a previous marriage, hence the Commendatore’s granddaughter. Donna Anna’s new fiancé, Don Ottavio, seems unsure of his place in this dysfunctional family. And Leporello? He’s a young relative of the Commendatore’s, living in the house, which lends ambiguity to his relationship with Giovanni, his supposed boss.
In this production (running through Feb. 21), the muscular-voiced Canadian baritone Russell Braun plays Giovanni as middle-aged and wasted, someone trying to convince himself that by luring women into sex, he will liberate them from absurd codes of proper behavior and protocols of entitlement.
The current Paris National Opera production (through next Saturday), first presented there in 2006, also tries to make the power relationships and sexual intrigue in the opera more immediate by placing the story in the sleek headquarters of a corporate enterprise. All the action occurs on one floor of the building, with a row of offices opposite a curved wall of picture windows offering spectacular city views. Giovanni, sung by the dynamic bass-baritone Erwin Schrott, is the company’s self-made, rapacious chief executive; the Commendatore, its clueless patron. Mr. Tcherniakov, who triumphed at the Met last season with his production of Borodin’s “Prince Igor,” may go to extremes in his interpretation of “Giovanni.” Yet every element is based on what seems like an acute reading of the libretto and the music. He almost eliminates the opera’s supernatural strands. Giovanni is subject to chest pains. And he is not consumed by hellish furies, but frightened to near-death by family members, who summon him to a kind of intervention. It would appear that they have hired someone to portray the dead Commendatore and terrify Giovanni, who winds up reeling on the floor.
Mr. Tcherniakov elicits nuanced performances from a compelling cast, especially the bright-voiced soprano Jane Archibald as a restless, conflicted Donna Anna, and the veteran tenor Michael Schade as an intriguingly aloof Don Ottavio. The conductor Michael Hofstetter led a grave, ominous account of the score.
Though the Met’s production is timid, this performance was, overall, the best sung, conducted and played of the three. Mr. Mattei is a commanding Giovanni: tall, impetuous and charged with sexuality: He can bend a phrase with seductive legato.
Mr. Mattei is well matched with the Leporello of the vibrant bass-baritoneLuca Pisaroni. He conveys the character’s bungling awkwardness. Yet Mr. Pisaroni’s natural charm comes through, lending Leporello a touch of swagger. Elza van den Heever, following her outstanding Met debut in 2012 as Elizabeth in Donizetti’s “Maria Stuarda,” is back as a vocally splendid and poignantly confused Donna Anna. Her singing is agile and focused, yet luminous and penetrating.
Making his Met debut, the Russian tenor Dmitry Korchak brings a warm and ardent though periodically insecure voice to Ottavio. It took me some time to warm up to the soprano Emma Bell as Donna Elvira. Now and then, she scooped up to high notes and sounded hard-edged. Still, she has a sizable voice and sang the demanding role fearlessly. The appealing Kate Lindsey as Zerlina, the husky-voiced Adam Plachetka (another Met debut) as Masetto, and the veteran James Morris as the Commendatore all did strong work.
For Mr. Gilbert, this Mozart run follows his impressive house debut in 2008 conducting John Adams’s “Doctor Atomic.” He conveyed the arc of Mozart’s score. Tempos were sometimes reined in, sometimes prodded. Yet an organic entity emerged: The orchestra played superbly.