When the Metropolitan’s General Manager Peter Gelb invited – almost two decades ago – Michael Grandage, a fine theater director with limited experience in the opera house, to stage Don Giovanni, his ideas about opera as theater were still novel. Since then, some of his attempts to pump fresh blood into the sclerosed veins of Metropolitan productions have translated into remarkable successes. Others, less so. Grandage’s Don Giovanni belongs to the latter category despite being revived multiple times as a showcase for talented voices.

<i>Don Giovanni</i> at The Met © Marty Sohl | Met Opera
Don Giovanni at The Met
© Marty Sohl | Met Opera

There have been many attempts to reconcile (or to augment) the libretto’s contradictions. From a beginning that has been seen both as a ruthless rape and a willing consent to a denouement where Don Giovanni's engulfment by flames has been transformed into a jester's triumph, directors have offered their own thinking about every episode. Possibly overwhelmed by all these precedents, Grandage doesn't really provide a personal view on this dramma giocoso, allowing every soloist to provide his/her own. One has difficulties imagining that Don Giovanni and Leporello, as pictured here, could possibly trade places. There is barely a whiff of Masetto and Zerlina potentially being instruments of social change. Is Don Giovanni the ultimate villain or is he an Enlightenment champion? Is this mise-en-scène a comedy of errors or is it a meditation on the passage of youth and life? We don't really know.

<i>Don Giovanni</i> at The Met © Marty Sohl | Met Opera
Don Giovanni at The Met
© Marty Sohl | Met Opera

The set by Grandage's frequent collaborator Christopher Oram, who also designed the 18th century inspired costumes, consists of multiple three-story façades, with shutters and balconies, limiting most of the action to the stage's apron. When the walls recede – making room for the wedding party or for Don Giovanni's dinner – the space becomes crowded with dancers executing an as conventional and uninspired choreography as ever under the Metropolitan's roof. During Leporello's Catalogue Aria, the balconies were too obviously adorned with female conquests. Later, they were transformed into funerary monuments' niches, filled with shady, cloaked, copies of the much bigger Commendatore's statue (all perhaps inspired by the pleurants decorating Philip the Bold’s sarcophagus in Dijon).

Making his debut at the helm of the Metropolitan Orchestra, Cornelius Meister, now in his first season as Generalmusikdirektor of the Stuttgart State Opera, didn't either bring any particularly insightful thoughts about Mozart's music. The overture was taken quite briskly and tempi varied, without too many justifications, over the rest of the evening. The orchestra supported the singers well but, at the same time, dialogues between voices and instrumentalists lacked vibrancy.

In terms of soloists, no single contribution was truly extraordinary, but neither was there a bad one. More, there was no special chemistry between singers (with the notable exception of the Don Giovanni–Zerlina duet “Là ci darem la mano”). Peter Mattei’s voice might have lost a tad of its luster but the Swedish baritone is still one of the best Don Giovannis around, clearly enjoying every moment. He is a great actor, moving around effortlessly and charming the public as easily as he mesmerizes his victims. His voice can switch from tender (“Deh! vieni alla finestra”) to forceful (“Metà di voi qua vadano”) at will and his phrasing was exquisite.

Peter Mattei (Don Giovanni) © Marty Sohl | Met Opera
Peter Mattei (Don Giovanni)
© Marty Sohl | Met Opera

Adam Plachetka stressed Leporello’s comic traits more than his torment and unhappiness. His best singing came during the recitativo passages where he used a variety of approaches. Serena Malfi, the only native Italian in this international cast, has a rich, earthy instrument, highlighted in “Batti, batti”, though her voice seemed stretched in the upper register. Paul Appleby sang Don Ottavio’s two big arias with composure and calm, emphasizing the dynamic range in “Dalla sua pace”. Susanna Phillips has a mellifluous voice, especially in her middle register. Nevertheless, having played the high-minded Donna Anna before, she had difficulties portraying Donna Elvira’s temperamental switches. A dignified Guanqun Yu handled most of the coloratura passages in Donna Anna's “Or sai chi l’onore” well, but her voice became tired towards the evening’s end. South Korean bass Kihwan Sim sang Masetto with confidence. Depending on his theatrical abilities, he might be ready to tackle this opera’s meatier roles. In between appearances as Fafner in Metropolitan’s Ring cycles, Russian bass Dmitry Belosselskiy brought a similarly menacing vein to his Commendatore.

The Met's spectators love Mozart’s opera, but they deserve an updated staging.

***11