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WNO's Don Giovanni: Eros to the End

Many thanks to Robert R. Reilly for this review from the Kennedy Center.

Halfway through its run till October 13th, on October 1st, I caught the Washington National Opera’s performance of Mozart's Don Giovanni.

The theme of the opera is that Eros unbound and undirected to an end that can fulfill it—such as marriage—is destructive. We see this destruction all around the decidedly unmarried Don Giovanni. We see it in the murder of the Commendatore, in the attempted despoliation of women, and, finally, his self-destruction. At the end, Don Giovanni actually chooses hell: the logical conclusion to his libertine life.

Director John Pascoe added interesting touches. I have never seen a baby in Don Giovanni before, for example, but there’s Donna Elvira, one of the Don's former conquests, showing up with one in her first scene in the Piazza. This cleverly shows the consequences—the incarnation, let us say—of the Don's actions. The point of the baby becomes especially poignant in the interior of the cathedral of the next scene, which contains a stunning depiction, in the form of a large statue, of the Madonna and Child. The same statue reappears in the central square in the second act when Donna Elvira invokes justice and prays for guidance. The clear contrast between divine love and love profaned is thus neatly and subtly dramatized.

Pascoe also begins where he ends. During the overture, through a scrim, we see a graveyard and cross before which a woman is praying (presumably Donna Anna, though we cannot see clearly) and Don Giovanni standing on the rock above female wraiths draped in white gauze, lying about like flotsam and jetsam, ghostly victims of his spent passion cast ashore. This highly evocative scene is as neat an encapsulation of the opera, as is the brilliant overture. The graveyard returns in the next-to-last scene of the opera, where Don Giovanni and Leporello encounter the talking statue of the Commendatore.

The sets and costumes are effective, but present some problems. In the first scene, the opera seems to be taking place sometime in the 19th century. In the second scene the setting has shifted to the early 20th century. There is even a photo op with the flash camera, and the soldiers are carrying guns. Why the time-travel? In the director’s notes, Pascoe explains that the setting is supposed to be “the historical period of Fascist and Royalist Spain,” and this is supposed to express the defining element of religion in Catholic Spain and the privileges of its ruling class. I don’t think this is dramatically conveyed… on the other hand it doesn’t do much damage. Having pistols onstage, however, did make the sword fight in Don Giovanni’s palace at the end of act one extra silly. Since Don Ottavio had a pistol in his hand, why didn't he simply shoot Don Giovanni and put an end to it? Also, what was Donna Elvira doing in a pants suit, a form of garb certainly not worn during any time of Fascist and Royalist Spain?

The bluish grey color that predominates in the sets also had me puzzled until I read the director’s notes in which he explained that “the set of riveted and rusting steel that is the framework of Giovanni's life; it is literally his prison.” Is everyone in the Don’s prison of ‘sexual freedom’ and should therefore the whole set be a prison? Does Don Giovanni’s unbridled sexual passion imprison everyone? In a way, that’s what moves the action of the opera; so Pascoe’s idea here is not so far-fetched.

Pascoe’s straightforward production clearly and happily trusts the opera enough not to put it through the sieve of a modern ‘concept’ in order to make it relevant to us. This also means being spared—largely—the vulgarity sometimes injected into this opera, such as in San Francisco’s Don Giovanni (read “The Loving and Loathing of Don Giovanni in San Francisco”), with its Cabaret-style sexually explicit poses.

Ildar Abdrazakov’s imposing bass and his rock solid portrayal made for an attractive Don. He was especially convincing and believable as a handsome seducer because he was vocally seductive. His darker side, though, was not quite as apparent: You could not see the moral corruption in this Don. Abdrazakov was matched by Barbara Frittoli's powerful and supple Donna Elvira. Meagan Miller’s soprano voice is extraordinarily potent, but became stentorian in her portrayal of Donna Anna: Too much of a good thing where delicacy and feminine vulnerability would have served her better. Unfortunately her Anna and Don Ottavio (tenor Juan Francisco Gatell who sang his arias with convincing tenderness) were physically mismatched, with Ottavio considerably smaller than his betrothed, in height, breadth, and width.

Veronica Cangemi as Zerlina and Aleksey Bogdanov as Masetto meanwhile were very well matched. Bogdanov especially—a fine actor and singer—brought life to everything he did. He could have given lessons to some of his fellow cast members who were wanting in the animation apartment. Cangemi’s voice blossomed in the Don's seduction scene with her, and she sang her “Batti, batti” aria exquisitely. Andrew Foster-Williams sang well, but could have infused his Leporello, Giovanni's faithful manservant, with greater personality and character. The ensemble singing in the trios, quartets, and the closing sextet was among the evening’s highlights.

Conductor Philippe Auguin leading the WNO Orchestra in a highly expressive performance didn’t just support the characters onstage, he became one of them, and properly so.

Don Giovanni will be repeated on October 7, 9 and 13. RRR

Picture [modified] courtesy Washington National Opera, © Scott Suchman


Anonymous said...

This is one of the most intelligent and well-argued reviews of an opera in DC that I have read in a long time.

Anonymous said...

As one who also attended the October 1 performance, Mr. Reilly puts it very well. Lets hear more from him.