San Francisco Opera’s current production of Don Giovanni stays in the mind and heart for a long time after experiencing it, tantalizing the senses much like a good wine that would have been treasured by the opera’s title character.

This production isn’t new (it was first staged in 2011), and is consequently the core of stable familiarity in the center of a meteor shower of new introductions for San Francisco audiences. These included wonderful new direction by Jacopo Spirei and new (highly evocative) scenic adaptations by German designer Tommi Brem, who projected ghostly videos and images of the offstage characters on 21 long, hanging mirrors, which dangled and turned like shards of a giant overhead chandelier in Don Giovanni’s banquet hall. This production also offered the San Francisco Opera debut for conductor Mark Minkowski and for several principal cast members as well. The overall effect was one of new discovery, insights, reactions and even a new awareness of Mozart’s sheer genius – not only for melodic invention, psychological perception, or plot/character portrayal through the music – but also for his unique ability to dovetail vocal and orchestral lines as part of the commentary or action.

And the action moves relatively quickly in this production, even though the company performs an elongated “composite” of the Prague and Vienna versions, including the epilogue but also adding some often-cut recitatives. Due to the brilliantly realized bass figurations and beautifully shaped phrases of Robert Mollicone on fortepiano, each of the many recitatives in this opera became a highly anticipated (and much savored) morsel of gorgeous sound. 

French conductor (and Early Music specialist) Mark Minkowski clearly shared and developed this sparkling “period” approach, while also unleashing dark, heavy chords of foreboding and drama when needed. His conducting, however, was a bit of an enigma. From the audience perspective, his vibrating wave of baton motions seemed nearly impossible to follow at times. Indeed, the orchestral sections were not always together, and occasionally were not in rhythmic sync with the soloists. However, Minkowski’s direction definitely emanated feeling and expressive phrasing for the ever-changing emotional landscape in this music. 

It was announced prior to the performance that the Italian bass-baritone Ildebrando D'Arcangelo, making his highly anticipated SF Opera debut in the title role of Don Giovanni, was “under the weather” but had agreed to go on, in any case, asking our understanding. The announcement proved almost unnecessary: with the willing energy and participation of his colleagues on stage, he gave a tremendously passionate performance.

The rapport between D'Arcangelo and Uruguayan bass-baritone Erwin Schrott (also making his company debut, as Leporello) was palpable. Intriguingly, each of these two artists has gained huge personal success worldwide singing both of these signature bass-baritone roles, Don Giovanni and Leporello, which gave an added intrigue to their exchange of clothing and “characters” in the second act.

While both were supremely convincing, the singing and acting of Erwin Schrott was exceptionally superb. Throughout every minute of the production his stage presence, comic timing and beautifully colored voice filled the opera house and never lost projection, charisma or focus. The same could not be said for Andrea Silvestrelli, who was magnificent one week ago in Rigoletto, but unfortunately the higher notes and particular technical demands of the Commendatore role seemed an unhappy match for his tremendous bass timbre.

French tenor Stanislas de Barbeyrac, also making his company and US debuts in this production, made a momentary but huge impression during his famous/infamous tenor aria, astounding all with his incomprehensible ability to sing seemingly endless ornamented phrases, all on one breath. Michael Sumuel as Masetto sang sensitively, but at times both his voice and personality had difficulty projecting past the orchestra pit. 

Projection was not an issue for the three female stars. The renowned Ana Maria Martinez, as Donna Elvira, played the comic parts to perfection and proved capable of some lovely high notes in expressive scenes during Act 2. However, her voice was overly strident in tone during much of the first act, making it hard to want to listen to or to feel empathy for her character.

Canadian soprano Erin Wall, making her SF Opera debut as Donna Anna, sang gloriously from start to finish. Whatever the mood her multi-faceted character needed to convey, the tone was always rich and glowingly beautiful, the vocal technique superb. But perhaps the most memorable, musical joy of this performance was created by the talented young soprano Sarah Shafer, singing the role of Zerlina. Her casting was a perfect match of voice, character and artist. Her supple voice has a unique sweetness to it, and she embodied the role to the point where one could no longer imagine anyone else singing that part. 

Great beginnings and new opportunities for so many involved, and yet the timeless genius of Mozart and his librettists remained uppermost in our minds as we left the opera house. And that, surely, is the sign of a succesful, worthy production.