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by Michael Portantiere

Wine, Women, and Song

  • Giovanni-edit.jpg

    Don Giovanni is generally conceded to be one of the supreme masterworks of civilization. And yet, as Jay Goodwin reminds us in his notes for the new Metropolitan Opera production, "many scholars have argued that [Lorenzo] Da Ponte's libretto...is dramatically a bit of a mess, only saved by Mozart's transcendent music."

    Certainly, the libretto has its issues in being so episodic -- not to mention the fact that, especially in the last half of the work, there are perhaps too many moments when the action comes to a standstill in order for one or another of the characters to emote in long, slow arias. But what arias! It would be silly to quibble with any production as beautifully sung as this one is, and as for the drama, director Michael Grandage and company play it for all its worth.

    Baritone Mariusz Kwiecien's debut in the production was delayed because of a back injury, so I rescheduled my press tickets in order to experience him in the role. He was more than the worth the wait. The sheer beauty of the voice is extraordinary, and Kwiecen also triumphs as an actor: His Giovanni is the epitome of refined, aristocratic gallantry when charming one of his many female conquests and, conversely, calls to mind a sloppy, horny, drunken frat boy when at his worst behavior.

    Marina Rebeka, a handsome woman with a gorgeous, superbly controlled voice, is perfection as Donna Anna; her volume and power are thrilling in "Or sai che l'onore" and other big moments, yet she can sound like the loveliest of lyric sopranos in the lady's more tender utterances.

    The production is notable for some interesting casting against type. The fact that Mojca Erdmann is much taller than the usual Zerlina, and Joshua Bloom more handsome than the typical Masetto, brings new colors to their relationship. For that matter, Luca Pisaroni's Leporello is considerably taller than Kwiecen's Giovanni, and this has an intriguing effect on the servant/master dynamic.

    As expertly conducted by Louis Langrée, the magnificent Met orchestra conjures the sweetness of true love, the eroticism of seduction, the fury of sworn vengeance, and the horrors of Hell by turns. The overture and the scenes with the Commendatore (sung with great authority by Stefan Kocan) have never sounded more fearsome and, at the other end of the spectrum, Anna's "Non mi dir," Zerlina's "Vedrai carino," and Ottavio's arias (rendered with honeyed tone by Ramon Vargas) never more beautiful.

    Grandage's staging eschews ludicrous updating and cheap tricks, instead offering clear storytelling and a number of memorable images -- as when, during Leporello's "Catalogue" aria, the extent of Giovanni's sexual exploits is illustrated by the image of two dozen or more women posed on the balconies of Christopher Oram's simple, effective set. The color palette of both the sets and costumes (also designed by Oram) shies away from the blue end of the spectrum. For the benefit of those who love special effects, the real flames that shoot up around Giovanni in his moment of reckoning are awesome.

    Miscalculations are few and minor: Ben Wright's lively choreography takes a little too much focus away from Zerlina's vocal in "Giovinette che fate all'amore," and at the performance I attended, the stage fog used for the graveyard scene telegraphed its presence by seeping onto the stage towards the end of the previous scene. Otherwise, all is very well here. This production is one that the Met will be happy to keep in its repertoire for years to come.

    Published on Tuesday, November 1, 2011

    Michael Portantiere has more than 30 years' experience as an editor and writer for TheaterMania.com, InTHEATER magazine, and BACK STAGE. He has interviewed theater notables for NPR.org, PLAYBILL, STAGEBILL, and OPERA NEWS, and has written notes for several cast albums. Michael is co-author of FORBIDDEN BROADWAY: BEHIND THE MYLAR CURTAIN, published in 2008 by Hal Leonard/Applause. Additionally, he is a professional photographer whose pictures have been published by THE NEW YORK TIMES, the DAILY NEWS, and several major websites. (Visit www.followspotphoto.com for more information.) He can be reached at [email protected]

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