Mozart's drama about the legendary rake’s egress launches the first season under Seattle Opera’s new general director, Aidan Lang. However, the production originated here in 2007, and the current revival had of course been scheduled well in advance. In other words, it makes no statement about the new Lang era but is instead a reverberation of the Speight Jenkins years.

Nicolas Cavallier (Don Giovanni) and Cecilia Hall (Zerlina) © Elise Bakketun
Nicolas Cavallier (Don Giovanni) and Cecilia Hall (Zerlina)
© Elise Bakketun

This production mines the comic possibilities inherent in the essentially picaresque, stop-start narrative pieced together by Da Ponte. The Overture, with its apocalyptic opening section introducing a cheerful, buffa main course, has always posed a musical conundrum, the solution to which, as in Tristan und Isolde, remains deferred until the end of the opera. Yet in Seattle’s McCaw Hall, those foreboding first chords have the effect rather of parentheses, of a statement that’s easily shunted aside until the topic comes up again, in rather nonsequitur fashion, during the grand finale.

The results are often entertaining. They highlight how much of the opera’s serious reputation as a tragic myth of untrammelled Eros rests on a comic substructure of mistaken or misconstrued identities, of chaotically conflicting priorities as the hunter is hunted down by his victims. Even the moralising epilogue has a comic edge: a white sheet comes down to cover up the hellish mess left behind by Don Giovanni. It's campily reminiscent of those 'closure' scenes in horror films, as the survivors try to get back to their ordinary lives. On the evidence of Seattle’s production, you’d be hard pressed to recognise the ‘demonic’ dimension so cherished by the Romantics. That myth of cosmic transgression has been replaced by the contemporary myth of the cooly charming rebel whose dangerous living casts an irresistible spell.

Indeed, Seattle Opera has marketed the production using a ‘#MozartsBadBoy’ hashtag campaign. After killing the Commendatore, this Giovanni flees back into the night on a motorcycle (by now, every bit as cliché as striking a Byronic pose became in the early 19th century). A few extra silent seductions get added to his catalogue as part of the stage action (including a nun on the way to the cemetery and a partygoer at Giovanni’s last supper).

Nicolas Cavallier (Don Giovanni) © Elise Bakketun
Nicolas Cavallier (Don Giovanni)
© Elise Bakketun

Directed by Chris Alexander – whose work has been popular among audiences here – the production featured Mariusz Kwiecien in the title role in 2007, for which the Polish baritone received the company’s ‘Artist of the Year’ award. After concluding Jenkins’ farewell season in May as Offenbach’s Hoffmann villains, the French bass Nicolas Cavallier has returned to take up the challenge posed by Mozart’s far more richly layered, ambivalent characterisation of villainy. The essential ingredients missing from his portrayal are intensity and a genuinely riveting stage presence. We get blandness rather than the monstrous blankness that has so seduced philosophers and commentators in the past. Cavallier sings with solid, focussed tone, but the effect is largely monochromatic – and particularly underwhelming in the climactic dinner scene. Erik Anstine’s likeable, common-sensical Leporello and fine comic timing occasionally even threaten to upstage his master.

As the Commendatore/Stone Guest, Jordan Bisch inserts a note of gravitas into the exchanges between Giovanni and Leporello, whose ongoing comic tone is emphasised in Alexander’s stage direction – and in the clever surtitles devised by Jonathan Dean.

Giovanni’s female victims of course furnish the opera with a rich source of variety: musical, psychological, and social. Erin Wall tends to strike the same emotional poses as Donna Anna, but she compensates with a thrilling dramatic soprano that retains its power in the most detailed coloratura. Alexander burdens the trickier role of Donna Elvira with comic shtick overkill, all amusingly performed by Elizabeth Caballero, but they get in the way instead of allowing access to her character. It takes until Act II for Caballero’s expressive vocal phrasing to win us over, rather than dismiss her as a maniac – more or less as the Giovanni who obsesses her has done. I especially like Cecelia Hall’s curious and very human Zerlina, neatly matched to a warmly tremulous mezzo. She’s well paired with the handsome singing of Evan Boyer as Masetto, who is driven to drunken self-pity by Giovanni’s attention to his new bride.

Erin Wall (Donna Anna) and Lawrence Brownlee (Don Ottavio) © Elise Bakketun
Erin Wall (Donna Anna) and Lawrence Brownlee (Don Ottavio)
© Elise Bakketun

There’s a bit of luxury casting, too: Lawrence Brownlee sings Don Ottavio’s two arias as if channeling the music of the spheres. Even more, the depth of feeling in his singing invests Donna Anna’s tag-along boyfriend, so often treated as a flat, inconsequential character, with compelling motivation.

Robert Dahlstrom’s minimalist set of a grey, two-storey wall is surprisingly flexible, changing from a facelessly brutalist structure when panels open to reveal hints of Giovanni’s luxury mansion or morphing into the Commendatore’s bleak mausoleum facade. Duane Schuler’s lighting conveys the opera’s largely nocturnal setting with admirable variety. The costumes by Marie-Therese Cramer, which range across the centuries, produce an eclectic blur that evokes the elusiveness of Don Giovanni – he can’t even be pinned to a particular era.

If the staging privileges comedy over pathos, conductor Gary Thor Wedow ensures that Mozart’s score is heard in all its dazzling, multilayered complexity. Contributing an early-music sensibility as to phrasing and texture, he reminds us how much of the action is contained in Mozart’s minutest orchestral detail.