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'Don Giovanni' Gets the Wilis

Ildar Abdrazakov (Don Giovanni) and Soloman Howard (the Commendatore) in Don Giovanni, Washington National Opera, 2012 (photo by Scott Suchman)
Opera companies perform Don Giovanni a lot: Wolf Trap this past summer and in 2005, the San Francisco Opera in 2011, the Salzburg Festival in 2010, to list only the most recent reviews in our archive. The Washington National Opera has again revived John Pascoe's quasi-updated staging of Mozart's masterpiece, generally at the top of my list for most ingenious opera ever written, last heard in 2007 and 2003. As heard last night, it features an ensemble-oriented cast with a couple individual performances that stood out. More importantly it is a group of singers whose acting in response to Pascoe's rethinking of the staging brought the director's ideas more clearly into light.

Ildar Abdrazakov, who was Leporello to Erwin Schrott's sebaceous Don Giovanni in 2007, was here upgraded to the title role. He did not bring as much sex appeal to the infamous libertine, but he used his voice in a varied way -- power where he needed it, a seductive suavity in the serenade "Deh vieni alla finestra," and rapid-fire patter in perhaps the most breathless "Fin ch'han dal vino" to reach these ears. Baritone Andrew Foster-Williams was a hapless, cowardly Leporello, with excellent comic timing, pleasing resonance, but a tendency to be ahead of the beat. Barbara Frittoli was not quite spiteful enough in her tone for Donna Elvira (oh, for Anja Kampe who sang the role in 2007!), but she took Pascoe's ideas about the character -- as a sort of female version of Don Giovanni -- and ran with it. Soprano Meagan Miller, in a powerful company debut, gave plenty of punch to the role of Donna Anna, with pure, floating high notes that added an angelic aura, with only a slightly overactive vibrato and lack of dynamic variation to cause complaint. She absolutely towered -- physically and vocally -- over her Don Ottavio, sung capably but not quite elegantly by Juan Francisco Gatell, with a lovely, meditative "Dalla sua pace" and a slow, somewhat labored "Il mio tesoro." Veronica Cangemi, known for her performances in early music, was a fetching Zerlina, often light and transparent of tone but with sparkle, while Aleksey Bogdanov's Masetto was memorable more for his comic acting. Soloman Howard, an otherwise fine singer, was imposing physically as the Commendatore but struggled a bit at the top of the role.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, Well-cast roles and creative ideas boost WNO’s ‘Don Giovanni’ (Washington Post, September 22)
Some interpretative choices on the part of conductor Philippe Auguin seemed a nod to the René Jacobs HIP recording of the opera. Some of Auguin's tempos were surprising, in the way that Jacobs sometimes is, with a rather fast damnation scene, for example, but luxuriantly slow choices in other places. Pascoe's staging updated the setting to Franco's Spain, which gives Don Giovanni the authority of a fascist police force behind him. A dumb show performed during the overture gave a glimpse of Don Giovanni's punishment in hell, surrounded by a group of former conquests in wedding veils, like the Wilis straight out of the ballet blanc in Giselle, and with ghostly bed frames suspended above him. The decision to have Donna Elvira show up with a babe in arms is a clever way to explain her absence and now her return, as well as why she is so absurdly devoted to Don Giovanni -- so much so that, in what Frittoli made an affecting moment, she tries to follow him into hell. Most scenes of this production compared favorably to the 2007 performance, which likely had something to do with how the singers embraced the direction.

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