Don Giovanni is perhaps the most difficult of the Mozart–Da Ponte opera trilogy to stage. Not only is there the problem of how exactly the Don is to be consumed in flames at the end of its three-hour span, or the issue of how to make the statue of the Commendatore come to life. There is also the question of how to square the deep sexual and class conflicts that are on display throughout the work with its constant humour. After all, Mozart designated this, his bleakest work, an opera buffa, or comic opera.
Theatre director Michael Grandage’s 2011 production was his third attempt at opera after a Glyndebourne Billy Budd and a Butterfly in Houston, and it focuses on humour rather than any of the the opera’s undercurrents. Christopher Oram’s set has us at street level facing a wall of balconies, out of which characters appear, flirt, escape, and so on. It opens up on a circular set to reveal, variously, the graveyard, a banquet hall, and yet more balconies, from which we see Giovanni’s conquests – still enraptured, all of them – during Leporello’s “Catalogue Aria”. Otherwise, not a great deal happens on stage, despite the occasional neat touch (like the hooded figures in the graveyard implying a community of fathers wronged by the Don), solid choreography from Ben Wright, and a real circle of flames at the end. With Grandage’s overall conception and Louisa Miller’s light directorial touch for this first revival, we’re left largely to take our own stand on the action by this production, which resolutely avoids the opera’s deeper undertones.
Much, then, was left to the singers in terms of bringing out the broader themes of Da Ponte’s caustic libretto and Mozart’s lyrically pained score. Erwin Schrott is surely the world’s foremost exponent of both the Don and the manservant Leporello. Here he took Leporello, and gave a masterclass in vocal shading, black comedy, envy, and resignation. Schrott managed to keep just the right balance between airing the necessary criticism of his boss, fearing him, and remaining ultimately dependent on him (or at least his class of masters). Reminders of his Figaro came through amusingly as the on-stage band quoted “Non più andrai” (from Le nozze di Figaro), and of his ability as the Don in his second-act imitations. His comedic moments might have been a little overdone at times, but this was a superb performance.
Ildar Abdrazakov’s Don – following quickly on from his Met Figaro last month and another Don in Washington before that – was also impressive. There was a beautiful hush to his window serenade, “Deh vieni alla finestra”, and his seductions had just the right amount of cliché. His interactions with Zerlina were suitably menacing, but more of that throughout would have been welcome to inject more darkness into the production. Susanna Phillips’ Donna Anna was equally a success in a very tricky role, and her declaration of fidelity to Ottavio (“Non mi dir, bell’idol mio”) was a rightly plaintive moral centre to the evening. An Ottavio from Charles Castronovo, meanwhile, was perhaps the most interesting portrayal of all, deeply earnest in trying to figure out how to deal with his distraught Anna, but consistently failing to hit the mark. His “Dalla sua pace” was deeply affecting.
David Soar’s Masetto, on debut, was well acted yet lacking slightly in vocal heft in an auditorium this large. Much the same could be said of Ekaterina Siurina’s Zerlina, whose devotion to Masetto seemed too easily frittered away on the Don. Raymond Aceto’s Commendatore was amply powerful in the final scene.
Edward Gardner was conducting his second run at the Met (his first was Carmen last year), and brought lucidity to the score. The overture could have relaxed a little more but generally this was neatly paced, with one or two other exceptions, and on the right side of being too impulsive. He drew luminous playing from this excellent Mozart orchestra, particularly in Zerlina’s “Vedrai carino” and Elvira’s monologue. The woodwinds in particular were superb, particularly the principal flute. Gardner brought a keen sense of structure too, with the Don’s fate foreshadowed throughout. Sadly, though, nothing could enliven an ultimately dull production.