The Met’s new production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, especially staged for Polish baritone Mariusz Kwiecien, aired Oct. 29—but it almost didn’t happen.
There are few in the New York area who could have escaped hearing about the leading singer’s back injury at the opera’s final dress rehearsal, his emergency operation, and the miraculously fast recovery. Incredibly, his physically extra-lively performance would never lead one to suspect that anything was holding him back. What other robust actions could he have exhibited had he been in full command of all spinal faculties?
For a goodly number of us in Westchester, the performance really did not happen because of the destructive Nor’Easter last Saturday. But in the WH City Center an astounding number of opera diehards attended. Bully for us courageous ones! We were rewarded with a lusty rendition of the Don, the work that composers Rossini, Gounod and Wagner cited as “the perfect opera.” Premiered in Prague to an enthusiastic audience in 1787, Mozart labeled his retelling of the Don Juan legend as an “opera buffa” (comic opera). The librettist Lorenzo da Ponte—who incidentally emigrated to New York, taught at Columbia and is buried in Uptown Manhattan—considered it a “drama giacosa” (a work that combines serious parts with comic).
That is closer to the mark for this remarkably complicated masterpiece that has entertained successfully for over two centuries. The current Met production now transmitted to 54 countries gave Kwiecien, Europe’s currently most celebrated Don, the chance to prove himself here. He came through admirably all around. His switching from elegance to snarling, threatening arrogance, was theatrically especially effective.
I have one criticism, which Kwiecien cannot help: He is a baritone. I prefer the three leading male parts: the Don; his mostly disgruntled servant, Leporello; and the statuesque Commendatore, to be basso voices. It makes their trio in the fantastic cemetery scene all the more majestic.
Renee Fleming, the HD movie host, informed us to expect the cast surrounding the Don, to be an impeccable group of international Mozart singers. She was on target.
The best female voice was Latvia’s Marina Rebeka, the ever-sorrowing Donna Anna. Italy’s beauteous Barbara Frittoli as the strident Donna Elvira had an uneasy start, but warmed up quickly and gave a particularly well-acted performance. The not-so-innocent peasant Zerlina, was given the part’s typically perky personality by Germany’s Mojica Erdmann.
The best acting, well paired with excellent vocal prowess, came from the lively and lusty Leporello, Luca Pisaroni, who hails from Venezuela. Outstanding also were the two arias by Mexican tenor Ramon Vargas, the hapless Don Attavio. He gave the ever-so-dull character a vocal stature to be highly praised.
The stately Commendatore, Slovakia’s Stefan Kokan, and Australia’s Joshua Bloom as the out-witted peasant Masetto, rounded out the well-polished, obviously thoroughly experienced Mozart ensemble. The speedy sextettes came off with a precision rarely achieved.
And that leads to the absolute winners of this Don Giovanni: the orchestra and its conductor, Fabio Luisi. The tone was glorious—from the magnificence of the slowly taken overture to the rapid tempi of some of the ensemble pieces. Mozart himself would have had to approve.
The staging by British director Michael Grandage did not stray from the standard mid-18th-Century time frame. A clever devise of a moving wall, a sort of early apartment building, (Seville in the mid 1700s?) allowed the display of a goodly number of the Don’s amorous conquests and served as believable settings for the various scene changes. Its drab colors and those of the costumes, however, were somewhat disappointing.
A hint, via a travel flask, that the unstable Elvira is an alcoholic, and Leporello’s newly underscored desire to be as sexually victorious as his employer, were ingenious touches. But the Don’s famed serenading of Elvira’s maid, here, to an off-stage mandolin accompaniment, for me proved a decided error.
I have never seen it staged without the singer pretending to accompany himself. Not doing so cheapened the aria. It reminded one of the ever-popular Fred Astaire movies constantly on TCM, in which Astaire bursts into song directed at Ginger Rogers. Suddenly, mysteriously, the song is backed by a 50-piece orchestra.
That may go for classic movies–not for classic opera. Normal arias, of course, are accepted with the steady operatic orchestra behind them, but a deliberate “serenade,” important in the story telling, calls for believable handling.
But that said—the afternoon was tremendously enjoyable and well worth tempting the fury of the elements outside.
Here are some comments from a few of your neighbors who braved it Oct. 29:
Marilyn Lieberman of Larchmont has been an opera goer for about 50 years, attending the Met for seven or eight performances per season. “Now, however, I find these movie transmissions so much easier and much more reasonable. But I am sorry not to have the ‘distance’ my center seat in the Grantier gave me,” she said. She noted that the extreme close-ups at times make us miss some of the action. (She’s right!)
Bernice Gale of White Plains thought it was a “wonderful production” and was happy that its “star” was able to perform. “I wish it were not snowing outside so I could be more relaxed,” was her one understandable complaint.
Martin and Ellen Eichenbaum of White Plains have been attending the HD movies since their inception. Evidently their advent captured the couple to experience this musical medium. “We were not opera-goers before then,” Mr. Eichenbaum told me, "so this Don Giovanni is our first. I find it quite beautiful but am surprised by the drab colors.”
Also, I just received an email from the Met, announcing that the HD movie transmission of this Don Giovanni was seen by an estimated audience of 265,000. The North American attendance alone is estimated at 107,000. And that’s without the encore. Buffos rejoice–opera is on the upswing!