The most indelible image from the new Lyric Opera production of Don Giovanni, running through 29 October at the Civic Opera Center, is in fact a double image. First, Mariusz Kwiecień as the Don, standing over the body of a woman whose back is to us, his hands at her neck or her hair, gripping. He's singing the so-called "Champagne Aria" – the moniker forecasts the festive way the number is often played and staged, as if Don Giovanni really is just a fun-loving guy who wants to make women happy. But Kwiecień's sex position looks murderous.

Mariusz Kwiecień (Don Giovanni) and Marina Rebeka (Donna Anna) © Todd Rosenberg
Mariusz Kwiecień (Don Giovanni) and Marina Rebeka (Donna Anna)
© Todd Rosenberg

And then, just a few scenes later, Zerlina sings "Batti, batti" to Masetto, the peasant girl trying to make up with her jealous newlywed by playfully inviting him to beat her. The elision of violence in this number, violence defanged, points to a tenderer world than that of the Don's predations. Only, at the end of her aria, soprano Andriana Chuchman has her Masetto on the floor, his back to the audience, she standing over him in the posture of a conqueror. The visual echo links Zerlina, who is after all one of the Don's thousands of victims, to her seducer. It forces, perhaps, contemplation of the nature of their respective charismas, and of the disparity of their fates in light of their shared weakness to pleasure.

Don Giovanni seems to invite some of the most banal depictions of sex to be found on the contemporary opera stage, yet there were moments in this production that brought new resonances, new complexities to the opera's canonical sexual dynamics. Sadly, most of it remained kindergarten-grade. The Kubrickian orgy tableau arrived and slipped away so quietly it seemed to apologize for its own presence; and perhaps only opera directors conceive of sex as the act of touching someone repeatedly on the crotch and chest.

Yet the problems that remain in finding persuasive and dynamic close-quarters choreography for singers while singing – thus avoiding the dreaded park-and-bark approach – are compensated for by the wildly lurid and resistant sets, assembled by set designer Walt Spangler under the overall direction of the Tony award-winning Robert Falls, who also serves as the Goodman Theatre’s artistic director. Falls claims that the production is set in 1920s Spain, but also notes that he chose the decade and the location in part for its internal anachronism – witness the moment Elvira bursts onto a scene filled with skirt-wearing peasants, channeling Amelia Earhart and trailed by a baggage handler and a moped with sidecar. And the settings have further been “theatricalized”: vertiginous staircases masked as shrubs bring the theatre floor into the upper reaches of the proscenium, locating the opera’s figures within a maze-like scale.

Marina Rebeka (Donna Anna) © Todd Rosenburg
Marina Rebeka (Donna Anna)
© Todd Rosenburg

This consistent visual beauty that remains strange enough to resist immediate, sugary consumption forms the setting for this Don’s musical approach, which starts a little stiff through the Commendatore’s death but seems to relax and become more flexible as the first act wears on. It is a testament to this ensemble that Kwiecień, who’s handsome even through opera glasses, can’t steal the show in spite of his utterly commanding physical and vocal presence as the Don. Less the smooth seducer à la Terfel, Kwiecień employs his ringing baritone like a whip, lashing his way around the stage.

Mariusz Kwiecień (Don Giovanni) and Andrea Silvestrelli (The Commendatore) © Todd Rosenberg
Mariusz Kwiecień (Don Giovanni) and Andrea Silvestrelli (The Commendatore)
© Todd Rosenberg

Tonally, his match is Ana María Martínez’s Elvira, who hams up her naturally vibrant and chocolatey tones a little to run indignant circles around him. One of the most exhilarating moments of the night was their quartet in Act I with Anna and Ottavio, who are trying to decide who to believe; the latter’s dour rigidity serves as the slow seria backdrop for Giovanni and Elvira’s screwball pace, their antic gesticulations shooting sparks around the hall as they try physically to suppress one another. But when Donna Anna, sung by the amazing Marina Rebeka, is free of comic distraction, she simply steals the show, finding such a sure delivery and modulation of tone that she somehow communicates a deep self-assurance even when her character’s emotionally all over the map.

Even Ottavio, who can be the most pedantic figure in the opera’s cast of characters, gave me food for thought this night. Antonio Poli is clearly capable of that honeyed tenor sound, but he doesn’t always use it, seemingly risking a range of deliveries and inflections in “Dalla sua pace” that don’t all cut through the orchestra with the same pleasing consistency. His Ottavio seemed fretful and hardly peaceful during this paean to peace – was this singerly insecurity, or the revelation of a man of honor struggling to keep his image intact?

All of these character dramas culminate, of course, in the descent to hell. And here the Goodman director’s theatrical sensibility makes a considerable impact. I won’t say more about it, only that it is worth seeing, a visual feat that is more complex than its initial dazzle would suggest. The Don’s pleasure is also a Sisyphean burden; for such a figure, descent may be the only relief.