Friday, October 21, 2011

The women (featuring the men)

Don Giovanni - Metropolitan Opera, 10/13/2011
Mattei, Pisaroni, Rebeka, Frittoli, Erdmann, Vargas, Bloom, Kocan / Luisi

While not exactly one of the show's great nights at the Met, last Thursday's premiere of Michael Grandage's new Don Giovanni production was, for the house, something perhaps more important: the reappearance of a solid frame in which good and great performances of Mozart's perennial can continue to be offered.

Marthe Keller's excessively genteel Don Giovanni monopolized the Met stage since 2004, inspiring at times similar dramatic evisceration in the pit. Grandage's replacement production comes from the same general place -- the recognizably civilized world in which both Mozart and his creation grew up, rendered in moving set segments -- but all the significant details are recast. Keller's recurring trope was emptiness: the large expanses of featureless brick (unfortunately presaging the Gelb era as a whole), the meaningless stage-business elaborations (most notably the double- and triple-length exchanging of costumes for the serenade scene, all to no enlightening effect), and, of course, a finale in which the stone guest fails to appear except as a barely-visible lipsynching apparition in a mirror (which mirror also takes the place of hell, the devils, etc.). Perhaps we were meant to dream these spaces full of more interesting happenings than the actual show was willing to provide us... Grandage and his set/costume designer Christopher Oram actually render a filled-in scene, and it's a very particular human one.

His moving parts are in two pairs: two flat half-walls that come together out front, and two concave-curved half-walls that come together (and apart) behind. Each of these half-walls is a three-by-three grid of square panels (with a single one-by-three center column of panels sometimes appearing between the halves in the rear), and each of the panels is colored in a different pastel shade. It's a little like watching a backdrop wall of children's blocks. (The visibility of the coloring, though, comes and goes with the lighting.)

But this is not another flat, more clever-than-engaging set like those in last season's Don Carlo. The distressed and weathered-looking border between the squares adds visual inflection, as well as an echo of Jonathan Miller's now-familiar Figaro production. But most of the character is within the panels themselves, which are in the form of Spanish balconies, from which the players appear, climb, observe, and are observed. These familiar Spanish details help us place the people who appear thereon: some familiar -- Giovanni's initial business on and descent from Anna's balcony is a bit physically tricky, and couldn't have been good for Kwiecien's unfortunate back -- and others not. Grandage's biggest liberty is his staging of the catalog aria, during which the scene opens for the first time to wholly reveal the rear panels... which themselves open to reveal the recalled conquests Leporello is counting.

They don't look quite displeased -- which is one running theme of the production -- but it is these women's dressed and accessorized collective presence that makes the strongest effect. For Don Giovanni, at least, the world isn't empty but rather prominently full of the female form, and Grandage creates that around him. First in the catalog, later in the crowd and party scenes, and even at the supper for the Commendatore -- at which six of the eight footmen are in fact women -- the womanizer has his necessary context.

When the statue does, arrive, though, it's in the one real mistake of the production -- a skeleton-shirt that looks just like a cheap Halloween costume/t-shirt. This could use a change. The maximalist fire show at Giovanni's descent to hell, however, is a welcome relief after Keller's mirror business.

*     *     *

The cast, meanwhile, was more notable on the men's side. Don Giovanni is the part Peter Mattei and his height, charm, and seductive baritone were born to play, and he does it memorably here -- though short rehearsal has resulted in an incarnation that seems not quite native to this particular production. This should change, if he continues in the part. Mattei still has fine boyish chemistry with his Leporello, Luca Pisaroni, who's an enjoyably no-nonsense servant, neither too broad nor too grand. Ramon Vargas is yet another fine Ottavio (the Met's done well here of late), with remarkable breath and phrasing in Il mio tesoro that brought down the house, while Stefan Kocan again was a plus as the Commendatore.

The ladies were a more mixed success. Best was debutant Mojca Erdmann, who though not vocally imposing in Zerlina's middle-of-the-road part (she threw some flourishes into the end of "Vedrai carino", apparently to alert listeners that she's really a high soprano) played the most nuanced version of the character I've seen. Per Erdmann and Grandage, Zerlina isn't the dime-a-dozen town flirt or trollop too often presented by the lazy, but a live mixture of sense (she instinctively moves to settle Masetto even as she herself is unsettled), naivete, groundedness and sensibility whose one weak point -- old fantasies of the nobleman who'll take her away from it all -- Giovanni knows unerringly how to hit. When we see her charge and thrill to this suddenly-unfolding possibility it's not lasciviousness but the limit of her common sense that's exposed -- and actually makes her more charming.

The other debutant, Marina Rebeka, sang strongly and intelligently as Donna Anna, but -- as, to a lesser extent, with Tamar Iveri years ago -- I found her basic vocal production really unappealing. It's not a easy sound, with almost a female countertenor character that failed to grow on me even after she tamed some early hootiness. The rest of the audience, for what it's worth, seemed to approve.

Finally, Barbara Frittoli was about as successful as in last year's Carmens: that is, she performed well despite being not quite sound in the actual singing. Elvira is a difficult part, and audiences have made vocal allowances for years, but after the unqualified back-to-back successes of Susan Graham and Dorothea Röschmann, it's hard to go back to those old ways.

Perhaps Levine would have gotten more out of Frittoli: she sang with him regularly, including in the Cosi six years ago that was something like the high point of the entire Levine era. In that run she still had sonic flaws, but the Met Orchestra played at a level of sound and phrase it's rarely touched since, natural and gorgeous breaths coming one after the other to touch the simultaneous highs and lows of Da Ponte's story.

That didn't happen last week, and may never happen again. Fabio Luisi, in the first of what's sure to be a string of unfair but not unwarranted comparisons, conducted with his usual precision, a nice bit of energy, and some really well-managed phrasing in the slow intros to the second act's arias. He's significantly better in this than Louis Langree or Lothar Koenigs, but still... New York audiences have been spoiled, and Luisi doesn't bring either the daemonic or sublime elements (or both!) to the fever pitch that Levine's Mozart has unforgettably shown.

Still, it's a good start to a production that should see more casts and conductors before it's done. Let's hope Mattei remains.

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Absolutely no axe-grinding, please.