The Metropolitan Opera’s revival of the 2011 production of Don Giovanni by Michael Grandage was a much quieter affair than the company’s much anticipated and heralded season opening of Tristan und Isolde the previous evening. The audience in the not-quite-full house was rewarded by a delightful performance that reminded us of the genius of Mozart’s music that could bring revelation and excitement in the hands of professionals, even when its individual parts may not be quite perfect.

Simon Keenlyside + chorus © Marty Sohl | Metropolitan Opera
Simon Keenlyside + chorus
© Marty Sohl | Metropolitan Opera

The production is traditional, dominated by a tall slightly curved structure of wood color with shutters in stage front that opens and closes to reveal behind it Don Giovanni’s hall, a meadow, a cemetery. It is neither imaginative nor offensive; action moves swiftly and efficiently. The costumes are traditional in muted color palate. Stage action requires a certain amount of graceful and at times athletic movements by the singers; it is not a stand and deliver direction. The principal singers were all good actors and related to one another in a realistic and lively manner.

Simon Keenlyside (Don Giovanni) © Marty Sohl | Metropolitan Opera
Simon Keenlyside (Don Giovanni)
© Marty Sohl | Metropolitan Opera
Simon Keenlyside took the title role after a couple of years of reported vocal difficulties and cancellations. At 57, his lyrical baritone has lost some of its sheen but he more than made up for it by his honed acting skill. He sang with beautiful long legato in higher range, and the role of Don Giovanni with many recitative passages suited him well. This was not a boisterous and impulsive playboy but a clever and suave manipulator who seemed genuinely surprised by negative consequence of his actions. He acted not only with his voice but with his body; his face registered Don’s every emotion and thought. It was difficult to take one’s eyes off this magnetic presence whenever Keenlyside was on stage.

As Don’s servant Leporello, Adam Plachetka was gruff in appearance and gravelly in voice. A tall figure, he was a perfect foil to his less tall master, although their height differences did not lend credibility to their disguise as one another by exchanging clothes. Matthew Rose made the most of his brief appearance as Masetto with his sonorous and warm bass. The veteran Kwangchul Youn was luxury cast as the Commendatore and brought steadiness and depth to the final scene.

Adam Platchetka (Leporello), Malin Byström (Donna Elvira) © Marty Sohl | Metropolitan Opera
Adam Platchetka (Leporello), Malin Byström (Donna Elvira)
© Marty Sohl | Metropolitan Opera
The women had mixed success. As Donna Anna, Hibla Gerzmava’s lush middle voice did not extend to her high notes which were more steely. After some needed warmup, Malin Byström proved a proud and noble Donna Elvira. Her clear voice negotiated the role’s wide range with little difficulty. Serena Malfi’s rich and warm voice made her an unusual but winning Zerlina.

The best vocal performance of the evening came from Paul Appleby as Don Ottavio, who replaced the originally scheduled tenor with a few weeks’ notice. His small but penetrating voice suited the role well, and he sang Ottavio’s two big arias with poise and elegance. His voice scaled up to the highest notes with silverly smoothness and opened up with aching beauty. The tempo chosen was slow, and Mr Appleby caressed every phrase and note.

Maestro Fabio Luisi began the overture quietly and slowly, but his conducting was never plodding. He had an uncanny instinct for the overall arch of Mozart’s music. While the performance was not rushed, the story moved swiftly to its inevitable conclusion. His leadership was such that the audience sensed not to interrupt the flow of music by constant applauding in the second half of the opera. There was an emphasis on the chamber-like clarity and softness in Luisi’s conducting and a sense of unhurried joy prevailed throughout.   Sometimes Luisi’s conducting inexplicably speeded up to singers’ detriment. But it was an occasion to savor the genius of Mozart and to welcome back a veteran baritone on the mend, brought out by an ensemble of talented singers and musicians.