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Ionarts-at-Large: The Loving and Loathing of Don Giovanni in San Francisco

Many thanks to Robert R. Reilly for this review from San Francisco.

With six admirable principals in very impressive ensembles, the San Francisco Opera production of Don Giovanni got off to a good start on Wednesday evening, November 2nd. The orchestra, under conductor Nicola Luisotti, provided seamless underpinning—so much so that it seldom stood out on its own unless one paid particular attention. This is a compliment, not a criticism.

The problem with the production was its conception of Don Giovanni as a mere thug. Lucas Meacham, in fine vocal fettle, was dressed in black leather, placed against a black background, and sported anachronistic sunglasses—sunglasses of course being a theater-man’s prop of choice to signal “evil!” The error in this production is that it did not make sin attractive. People choose sin not because it is ugly, but because it looks good. Its cloak is that of light, not darkness: We hear this in Mozart's music and we also ought to see it on stage.

available at Amazon
W.A.Mozart, Don Giovanni,
R.Jacobs / Freiburg Baroque O.
Weisser, Regazzo, Pendatchanska et al.
Harmonia Mundi

With Don Giovanni so loutish looking, I nearly laughed every time he was referred to as an aristocrat. For women to choose a ‘bad boy’ isn’t an uncommon occurrence, but why love a thug when he isn’t even dashing? This lack of attractiveness undermined the dramatic tension of the plot. If we cannot believe in the Don's irresistible charms, how are we to believe in the women’s succumbing to them? Even in a genre in which we willingly suspend disbelief, this was unbelievable. A moment of ‘what might have been’ did peek through in Meacham's exquisite singing of Don Giovanni's serenade to Donna Elvira’s maid: the sunglasses came off and, for the first time, we could see a believable portrayal of tenderness. Or at least a portrayal of tenderness that a woman could believe. Alas, this came far too late to make the dramatic point it could have. Don Giovanni was also quite active with a large handkerchief, which he repeatedly placed over the faces of the women he was to kiss. If this signaled his dehumanization of the ladies, it also meant he got a mouthful of cotton. Why, then, do it more than once? The symbolism became too painfully obvious.

The principal scenic backdrop was provided by giant ascending and descending dark mirrors, large contraptions 16 by 6 feet in size. Lowered during the overture, they turned out to be a touch of overkill in suggesting the narcissism of Don Giovanni. The program notes by director Gabriele Lavia reveal that he meant them to convey the idea of reflection or, rather, self-reflection. Of course, of the latter there is none in Don Giovanni—which, incidentally, is the Don’s chief problem.

There were other missteps. There are a number of double entendres in this opera, and Zerlina employs many of them in her attempt to mollify her jealous fiancé Massetto. By using sexually explicit poses more appropriate to the Cabaret, Zerlina’s double entendres became, if one may say, single entendres. Making the implicit explicit always looses something—more than was made up for in the cheap laughs that were elicited and duly received.

The scenery, made up of mirrors and minimal sets, gave little sense of place. Exceptions to this were the atmospheric graveyard scene, and the closing banquet setting. Aside from Giovanni donning black, the costumes were in muted, fall colors—seasonally appropriate, if nothing else.

The acting, on the other hand, was particularly fine. Zerlina and Masetto not only looked as if they were from Central Casting, they also acted and sang their parts with particular distinction—outstandingly so in respect to the performance of Kate Lindsey, who has real spark. Shawn Mathey made his exquisitely sung San Francisco Opera debut in the role of Don Ottavio. If he has never actually sung this role on stage before, he has certainly mastered it.

A few less-than-assured moments in the second act did not detract from Ellie Dehn’s fine performance as Donna Anna. Serena Farnocchia began her Donna Elvira projecting weakly from upstage but almost immediately warmed up and gave an affecting performance—somewhat attenuated by her habit of bending at the waist and swaying while singing her arias. As Leporello, Marco Vinco was outstanding; less ‘commedia dell'arte’, more comic Gollum.

The closing, moralizing sextet was omitted (as it was at the 1788 Vienna premiere), presumably to give the interpretation a more “tragic” note. That was not entirely convincing after so much of it had been played so broadly. All in all, a production better heard than seen. The performance is repeated on November 10th. RRR

Photo courtesy SF Opera, © Cory Weaver

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