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Punishing the Rake

Erwin Schrott as Don Giovanni, Washington National Opera, 2007,
photo by Karin Cooper
Before the curtain of the second performance of Washington National Opera's new production of Mozart's Don Giovanni on Monday night, conductor Plácido Domingo made an announcement. Happily, it was not to announce a cast change, but to draw the audience's attention to the fact, pointed out in my preview article, that it was the 220th anniversary of the opera's first performance in Prague (October 29, 1787). This production is not likely to rank high on anyone's list of noteworthy versions of Don Giovanni, in spite of the auspicious occasion, but the singing was generally good, sometimes excellent.

Director John Pascoe has rethought his 2003 production with different costumes and sets. Pascoe has said that his new concept revolves around the idea that Don Giovanni "has to be an incredibly seductive figure . . . looking like a magnificent sexually driven animal in the first act." While the fanciful costume designs gave the impression of Don Giovanni transported to the world of The Crow or X-Men, on the stage it is much tamer. Pascoe draws an axis of opposition between two central characters, Don Giovanni and Donna Elvira, costuming them similarly in a cross between light bondage fetish (tight leather pants for him, leather bustier for her) and 19th-century fashion (Napoleonic military uniforms, Victorian dresses).

Anja Kampe as Donna Elvira, Washington National Opera, 2007,
photo by Karin Cooper
The sets evoke a warm climate of palm trees, with Spanish dancers in the peasant scene at the end of Act I and neoclassical architecture made of riveted steel girders (the Don's "prison," according to Pascoe's Director's Note). The staging, with its references to Franco's Spain, adds little to the story, and far more importantly it mostly does not detract from it.

The casting is much more in line with expectations for the company than the season opener, La Bohème. Uruguayan baritone Erwin Schrott reprises his 2003 Washington appearance in the title role, with vocal and dramatic appeal beyond his smarmy, bare-shirted physical presence. He owns the role in many ways, even eying up women in the audience to put across his status as universal seducer. The only false note of the evening -- presumably the choice of the director -- was in the graveyard scene, where the statue of Il Commendatore nods one final time, to Don Giovanni and not to Leporello (something that is pointedly not in the libretto -- also available in English translation), making Schrott's Don squeal and take to his heels. It seems unlikely that Don Giovanni would ever lower himself to appearing scared of his own damnation, even if he were actually scared. Lorenzo da Ponte reportedly hit on the idea to adapt the Don Juan story into an opera after reading Dante's Inferno. Dante's concept of the contrapasso is that the sinners in hell love their sins more than anything else: God's love simply grants them the chance to live out the sins they love for eternity.

Other Reviews:

Matthew Westphal, Don Giovanni Starring Erwin Schrott Opens at Washington National Opera (Playbill Arts, October 25)

Tim Page, This 'Don Giovanni' Is More Parry Than Thrust (Washington Post, October 27)

T. L. Ponick, A dark 'Giovanni' of depth, beauty (Washington Times, October 27)

Tim Smith, 'Don Giovanni' gets vivid treatment in D.C. (Critical Mass, October 31)

Karren Alenier, Don Giovanni at Halloween (The Dressing, October 31)
Ildar Abdrazakov was spot on as the Don's servant, Leporello. His timing was impeccable, as with his moments of patter, and his comic sense was finely honed. Erin Wall was a noble and iridescent Donna Anna, her lyric voice tiring only at a few moments near the end of the second act. Anja Kampe reigned triumphant as the vengeful Donna Elvira, cast perhaps as a nod to the Fricka-like qualities of the role. The sexy costumes did not flatter her as much as they did Schrott, and it is hard to know what to make of the fact that she appeared to have given birth to Don Giovanni's baby, shown in the clumsy dumb show unfortunately staged during the overture. Twice, she hands the child off to nuns who appear to be following her around. Are we to understand that she is a disgraced nun herself? According to the libretto, Donna Elvira resolves to enter the religious life in the final scene, a line that would make no sense if she were already a nun.

The supporting roles were sung capably by lesser singers. Morris Robinson had a lumbering stage presence but slightly swallowed tone as Il Commendatore, and Shawn Mathey was a pleasant but hardly shimmering Don Ottavio. Amanda Squitieri and Trevor Scheunemann were charmingly annoying as Masetto and Zerlina, the lower-class rubes scammed by the suave patrician. There is unfortunately no other explanation for the raggedness of the orchestral sound and the lack of coordination between singers and pit than the deficiencies of the conductor, Plácido Domingo. Domingo lends a much needed aura of stardom to anything he touches, but it generally comes at a cost to the finished quality of the music when he is on the podium.

There are six performances of Don Giovanni remaining, from November 1 to 16, all of them already sold out so buy your ticket now! Note the changes in personnel for the later performances, including a second cast (not all roles change) and two nights without Domingo conducting.


Garth Trinkl said...

Thank you for your review, Charles. We, too, generally enjoyed the Monday night production more than did Tim Page.

I also wanted to point out to you that large handfuls, if not scores, of tickets remain to all of the remaining six Don Giovanni performances. One must check the Washington National Opera web-site, as opposed to the Kennedy Center web-site.

[In my view, this informational disjunction does a disservice to the Washington, national, and international, cultural communities.]

Also, though they could of course pull it, the Washington National Opera promised to make 50 day of performance tickets available, at $25 each, to each of the November 7 and 13 week-day productions. (Artists and those working for low-income in the non-profit sector for societal change -- as well as students, military, the elderly, those with low-income government cards -- are are all eligible to participate in this move toward the nationalization of the company.)


[Boo to the young one.]

Charles T. Downey said...

Thanks for the catch on the tickets, Garth. The new KC Web site setup still has some kinks in it.

I have mentioned the Access to Opera thing here and at DCist several times, but it can never hurt to repeat it either.

John said...

I assumed that Donna Elvira's handing off the baby to nuns simply reflected the custom of an earlier day, when the good sisters were often the only ones who would take orphans or bastards. Conceivably she could appear to do it twice because of some sort of visiting rights, but we needn't get that literal.

Charles T. Downey said...

Right... but if the director introduces something in the staging that is not actually part of the opera, one is obliged, I think, to understand why it's there. It still does not make sense to me, but it's a minor point.

Anonymous said...

Vulgar production of a great opera. Mozart should return from the grave to ask Domingo if he wishes to repent.