Monday, October 13, 2008

Less than meets the ear

I actually saw Don Giovanni a week and a half ago. Its current cast may be the best at the Met, top to bottom, in a long while. So why isn't the whole as memorable as prior incarnations of the piece?

It wasn't exactly what one might have feared. Erwin Schrott, the Uruguayan bass perhaps best known for being the father of Anna Netrebko's baby, was, unlike in Figaro, well-cast in the title part. Though the Fabioesque shirt-removals and pronounced swaggering gestures were a bit... obvious, they aren't out of line with the more legendary, less realistic figure of Don Giovanni. The character is always seen in action and in context, never alone -- his serenade is to an offstage woman -- so the impression that he is always seeking an effect, a distraction in Figaro, is here mostly fitting. (And aligned with his intent: Schrott states in an interview with the Met that he believes Don Giovanni to be empty and incapable of real emotion.)

Vocally he was young, strong and sure, again perhaps not inwardly seductive but neither lacking appeal. He was well-matched with Ildebrando D'Arcangelo, his Leporello, who was amusing as well as fluent. (Though I might like a bit more force at the bottom of a Leporello's range.) Joshua Bloom's debut as Masetto was also strong, but the best of the men was tenor Matthew Polenzani as Don Ottavio. His first act aria, "Dalla sua pace", reached in its repeat the hushed union of feeling and sound that makes hours in the theater worth it.

Susan Graham came off best among the women, and might have been the best -- most affecting, anyway -- Donna Elvira I've yet heard. Those complaining about her (not particularly objectionable) top notes seem to have forgotten the desperate approximations that have haunted this part over the years. Graham negotiates the florid bits with style and warmth, but her real strength is in the character: not at all hapless, as Graham sings and embodies it, but -- like, though not to the heights of, her Sesto's last season -- tortured by an unmistakable current of real feeling.

Krassimira Stoyanova sang well, as usual, though without similar dramatic presence as Donna Anna. Isabel Leonard, the Zerlina, would have a career for her Keira Knightly looks even without much of a voice, but she has that too. (And unlike the last striking face in Zerlina, the future Mrs. Teddy Tahu Rhodes actually takes the part seriously.)

That all were a pleasure to hear perhaps hints at a problem: though ever lively and tasteful, conductor Louis Langree didn't much register the daemonic element in Mozart's score. It was a deficiency echoed by the production, which is just too genteel for its own good -- its endless brick walls and candelabra-bearing servants leaving no room for even Masetto and Zerlina's peasant rusticity, much less the career and fate of the title character. (In director Marthe Keller's one notable deviation from the text, the Commendatore's visiting statue is turned into a mere figure in a mirror, which updates the supernatural touch by sucking the viscerality out of it.) Add to this the blankness that Schrott and stage director Gina Lapinski left under Don Giovanni's external display -- his uncontrollable, spill-inducing trembling as the Commendatore is about to arrive is a nice touch, but this physical reaction is about all that's offered -- and the tale shrinks to not much more than social comedy.

Still, it's a good sing. Perhaps debuting conductor Lothar Koenigs will make more of the show in December's performances.


  1. Who do you mean by "the last striking face" as Zerlina--Netrebko or Bayrakdarian?

  2. Netrebko. I believe she admitted in an interview later to finding the character boring -- it showed.

  3. The last striking face is Ms. Anya. She always thought that the peasant girl was beneath her. As for lovely Ms. Isabel Bayrakdarian, she will be back in the later run with Peter Mattei as the DON! I have heard quite a few Dons at the MET, I think Mr. Mattei is the best.


Absolutely no axe-grinding, please.