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The Don Returns

New York
The Metropolitan Opera
04/13/2009 -  & April 16*, 20, 24, 2009
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Don Giovanni
Erin Wall (Donna Anna), Barbara Frittoli (Donna Elvira), Isabel Bayrakdarian (Zerlina), Pavol Breslik (Don Ottavio), Raymond Aceto (Commendatore), Peter Mattei (Don Giovanni), Samuel Ramey (Leporello)
Metropolitan Opera Chorus, Donald Palumbo (Chorus Master), Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, Louis Langrée (Conductor)
Marthe Keller (Production), Michael Yeargan (Set Design), Christine Rabot-Pinson (Costume Design), Jean Kalman (Lighting Design), Gina Lapinski (Stage Director), Blanca Li (Choreographer)

(© Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera)

It’s rather a paradox. An opera with a title character whose name and legend have been notorious for hundreds of years as emblematic of an aristocrat’s amorous adventures is more about the three women he seduces or attempts to seduce than it is about him. Mozart’s women, including these three, Pamina, Countess Almaviva, and most especially Susanna, are much more highly developed psychologically than any of his men.

One of the great good fortunes of this production is that Erin Wall, Barbara Frittoli, and Isabel Bayrakdarian turned in stunning musical and dramatic portrayals. In her Met debut, Erin Wall sang with a voluptuous voice – rich in tone, flexible, and with secure high notes. She painted a portrait of Anna as a tormented woman who may well have been attracted to Don Giovanni and is not much taken with her fiancé, Don Ottavio. Her desire for vengeance for the Don’s murder of her father drives the opera and invests her singing with passion and dramatic power. She has made a superb start to what promises to be a mutually beneficial association with the Met.

Barbara Frittoli, who had originally been set to sing the part of Donna Anna, was a musically compelling and fascinating Elvira – emotionally conflicted, full of passion, obsessed with Giovanni, whom she wants to save if not from himself at least for herself.
Isabel Bayrakdarian as Zerlina sang with exquisite lyricism and elegant phrasing. On her wedding day, and obviously in love with Masetto, she was nonetheless tempted to go off with Giovanni. She conveyed her mixed feelings brilliantly.

Peter Mattei’s Don Giovanni was compelling musically and physically; he was the very essence of a cavalier. Although it did take him a while to warm up, he sang the enchanting serenade in act two with melting lyricism. But, for me, Don Giovanni is much more than Mattei’s charming, roguish seducer. He is the embodiment of passion, energy and drive – an elemental force that can only be repelled and finally vanquished by the corresponding force embodied by the statue of the man whom he killed. In the conflict between untrammeled liberty and the preservation of the social order, it is the latter that prevailed. Don Giovanni went to hell. But that’s not the end of the story. He died a hero, refusing to repent and, after the postlude with the other thoroughly pedestrian characters, the last music of the opera is -- in the orchestra only this time -- his “Viva la liberta”.

This production premiered in 2004, while I was living in London, and this has been my first experience with it. Despite all of its good points (and there are many), I cannot help thinking back about ten years to the Met’s last production of Don Giovanni with Bryn Terfel. He was simply the best Don Giovanni I have ever seen. He was not only Mattei’s match in the charm department but he was primal in his power, energy, and destructiveness. His demonic, even savage quality was barely cloaked and contained by aristocratic breeding and good manners. He was as obsessed as Anna and Elvira and his “Fin ch’han dal vino” was sung as if by a man possessed. Mattei turned in first-rate performance of this aria but, for me at least, there was something crucial missing.

I have similar reservations about Louis Langrée, particularly with his conception of the overture. While he certainly gave full expression to the elegance and beauty of Mozart’s music, he neglected much that is dramatic and forceful. The Met Orchestra, as always, played beautifully.

My only real disappointment with this production relates to the way Don Giovanni meets his end. The staging of this scene may be the least musically and dramatically compelling version I have ever seen. The handwriting was on the wall in the cemetery scene. The statue was lying down on a sarcophagus over which Giovanni leaned to torment his murder victim. Puffs of smoke emanated from the tomb. I had visions of him puffing on a big cigar as he waited to deliver his dinner invitation. When next we see the Commendatore, he is in a rectangular compartment (which turns out to be the veritable elevator from hell), looking for all the world like the tin man from The Wizard of Oz. With this most unfortunate staging, the most riveting scene in all of opera was utterly robbed of its power.

Raymond Aceto as the Commendatore sounded rather weak . Pavol Breslik made a smashing debut as an ardent if thwarted Don Ottavio, singing with lyricism, a beautiful vocal timbre, and impressive breath control.

The third artist debuting at this performance was twenty-five year-old Shenyang, who only last month made a stunning recital debut at Alice Tully Hall. He was a convincing Masetto, singing securely throughout his range and demonstrating excellent comic timing. His future seems limitless.

One of the delights of the evening was Samuel Ramey’s return to the Met as Leporello, a fascinating switch especially for those of us who remember him vividly as a romantic yet diabolical Don Giovanni. In many ways, Leporello seems a much more musically interesting character and Ramey exploited this richness with his full arsenal of skills, vocal and dramatic. He showed masterful comic timing. The audience adored his commentary and adored him. His rousing ovation was richly deserved. Ramey is not the only Giovanni to have made the switch. Bryn Terfel, René Pape, and Ildelbrando d’Arcangelo are just three of many singers who have graced the opera stage in both roles, some going from master to servant and others in the reverse direction.

Performances in the nineteenth century often ended on a note of romantic heroism, with Don Giovanni’s death. But this was not what Mozart intended. I find his ending to be perfect. We get to see and hear what these characters’ lives are like now that this erotic force has gone out of their lives.

It’s all rather boring, isn’t it?

Arlene Judith Klotzko



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