Review: Kwiecien Excels in McVicar’s Dark Side “Don Giovanni” – San Francisco Opera, June 2, 2007

San Francisco Opera up until now has seen little of Polish baritone Mariusz Kwiecien, who had appeared previously only as Marcello in the second cast of Puccini’s “La Boheme” in 2004.  Having established himself as one of the world’s pre-eminent interpreters of Mozart, he returned to San Francisco in the title role in a new David McVicar production of Mozart’s “Don Giovanni”.  Co-produced and co-owned with the Theatre Royal de la Monnaie-Brussels, McVicar’s dark-side conceptualization had its premiere last Fall in Belgium.

McVicar, who often speaks of his lower middle-class boyhood in a squalid area of industrial Glasgow, used the pathway of theatre and opera to escape from a neighborhood, whose young men are more likely to be seduced by the kind of drug-sotted society portrayed in Danny Boyle’s Edinburgh-based film “Trainspotting” than by the glories of Mozart’s four greatest operas.

But it is not his intention that the Glaswegian neighborhood in which he was raised and places like it throughout the world be closed off to opera.  Instead, he has expressed his belief that the operas in our standard repertory, presented in period costume, but acted in a way that demonstrates the underlying social conflict and sexuality that simmers beneath almost all of them, would connect with a much broader audience, if the newcomers had the opportunity to afford the operas and some catalyst that would permit them to experience them.

Obviously comfortable with McVicar’s dark take on the opera, Kwiecien from his first appearance played Giovanni as a truly bad boy – as cruel and violent as he is self-indulgent and manipulative.  One might interpret the Kwiecien-McVicar Giovanni from the viewpoint of psychiatry (he manifests the symptoms of a classic sociopath), or religious cosmology (he is under the influence of a demonic force).

Or, to continue with McVicar’s theme of untapped audiences that would “get” opera properly staged, the millions brought up on the George Lucas-Joseph Campbell style of re-mythologizing old stories as movie epics, might well think of the Kwiecien-McVicar Don as someone with the instincts of a Sith. Through whichever prism one views it, it is a characterization that fascinates, rather than repulses, its observers.

Donald Runnicles was back at the conductor’s podium in his first “Don Giovanni” at the War Memorial in a dozen years.  From the first notes of the Overture, we begin to make out the contours of a unit set, at first dominated by a rectangular gray and rust-splotched wall.  That wall was raised to reveal the set’s most striking feature – a tile floor covering the entire stage.

At the footlights, one can see that the entire length of this tile floor covers human bones and skulls.  Some of the tiles have broken away from the remainder of the floor and have sunk into the graveyard residue. At the rear of the stage, and its side, are what appear to be cornices and chimneys of buildings crowded together.

McVicar’s set designer was John Macfarlane, like McVicar hailing from Glasgow, though now residing in Wales.  Although aware that McVicar personally approves his set designers, since I have yet to sign on as a Macfarlane fan, I found his splotched gray sets to be the least indispensible element of the new production.

Yet, I concede that if the San Francisco Opera has to be co-owner of one of the three of Macfarlane sets that have appeared here (the Richard Jones productions of Humperdinck’s “Hansel und Gretel” in 2002 and Tchaikovsky’s “Queen of Spades” in 2005 also employed Macfarlane), the “Don Giovanni” sets are the least objectionable.  Some elements of them are even interesting.

[Below: Donna Anna (Elza van den Heever) tries to aid the dying Commendatore (Kristinn Sigmundsson), as Don Ottavio (Charles Castronovo) looks on; edited image, based on a John Lee photograph, courtesy of San Francisco Opera.]

Although Kwiecien’s dominating performance earned an ovation from the Saturday evening audience, he shared the limelight with a Donna Anna who was added to the cast AFTER the opera’s dress rehearsal.  It was a triumphant evening for San Francisco Opera Adler Fellow Elza van den Heever, whose powerful voice, acting ability, attractive appearance, secure legato and formidable coloratura suggested to the audience that it was witnessing a star aborning.

In fact, the one criticism of her performance that could be offered, is that she was without experience in integrating her large voice into the ensembles with other principals.  As the night progressed, she made some appropriate adjustments.  It is less likely to be a problem in future performances.

The rest of the cast was also praiseworthy. The Leporello, Oren Gradus, a San Francisco Opera Merola Program alumnus, who has had only minor roles in San Francisco in the past, co-starred with Kwiecien last Fall at Houston Grand Opera.  Both played the same roles in a production planned when San Francisco Opera’s General Manager David Gockley ran that company.

[Below: Yet another betrayal – Donna Elvira (Twyla Robinson) begins to believe the smooth talk of Don Giovanni (Mariusz Kwiecien); edited image, based on a John Lee photograph, courtesy of San Francisco Opera.]

Charles Castronovo, the excellent leggiero tenor whose past S. F. Opera credits includes Mozart’s “Die Zauberfloete” (2003) and Bizet’s “Les Pecheurs de Perles” (2005), impressively sang his two important solo arias.  Former Adler Fellow Twyla Robinson, in her first major role for the main company, portrayed a sympathetic and beauteous Donna Elvira.

Claudia Mahnke, perhaps of all of the singers introduced to San Francisco by former General Director Pamela Rosenberg, the most consistently successful, added Zerlina to her list of triumphs here. Kristinn Sigmundsson, one of Iceland’s most valuable exports, sang and acted the role of Commendatore Don Pedro memorably.

Often, commentaries on “Don Giovanni” performances will not have much to say about the role of Masetto, even though this under-valued part has lots of great Mozartean music to sing, and abundant opportunity to display both comedic talents and pathos.  Masetto became the debut role in San Francisco for Italian basso Luca Pisaroni, who six years into his professional career already has starring roles in major international opera companies on his resume.

Handsome, vocally gifted, funny, and with good acting skills, one hopes he has been secured for future seasons in San Francisco.  Already having sung the title role in Mozart’s “Le Nozze di Figaro” at the New York Met, and with performances in that role scheduled at Salzburg, Pisaroni surely was a close observer of Kwiecien’s Don Giovanni, which would be a natural role to follow Figaro.

After Runnicles’ overture ends and Gradus delivers the first of his several opportunities to express his “take this job and shove it” sentiments, we are immersed into the aberrant behavior of the Kwiecien-McVicar Don.  He appears shirtless, physically overpowering a Donna Anna dressed in a rather skimpy cotton nightgown.  I believe this lady when later she says that she had been expecting Don Ottavio in her bedchambers, and in McVicar’s production, her attire suggests that her romance with Ottavio is less platonic than is often presented.

(Actually, the original play by Tirso de Molina from which “Don Giovanni” is ultimately based, makes it clear that Donna Anna was expecting her lover, that Giovanni knowing that, disguised himself by putting on the others’ clothes and took full advantage of the situation in a darkened room, before Anna figured out what had just happened.  Mozart and his librettist, Lorenzo da Ponte, surely knew this but deliberately introduced an ambiguity that has permitted a range of possible interpretations over the past 215 years or so as to what went on in Anna’s bedroom.)

Donna Anna’s father, the Commendatore, hearing the commotion from his daughter’s room, confronts his daughter’s masked assailant.  He is no match for Giovanni at lethal swordplay.  Kwiecien not only delivers a mortal blow but slashes Sigmundsson’s Don Pedro with obvious deliberation four times.  In gestures reminiscent of the best of the vampire film genre, Kwieicien crouches over Don Pedro’s life-ebbing body, and, assured that the he is the focus of the Commendatore’s final moments, takes off his mask to reveal his face.

In other productions, Don Giovanni might just be going through a rough patch of things turning out badly.  In McVicar’s it is the behavior of a sociopath determined to survive regardless of how his actions impact others, and, indeed, to enjoy the consequences of his destructiveness.

The Commendatore’s servants, all in their bedtime attire, are roused to remove the Commendatore’s body.  (In this production, sufficient time is spent in moving the corpse, and engaging in funeral processions to the graveyard, to at least provide some preparation for the appearance of the elaborate graveside monument for the Commendatore in the opera’s second act.)

As the principals don their regular street-clothes, we see the costuming is early 19th century, perhaps the time of the poet Byron, himself one of the great conjurers of the Don Juan legend.

Then Donna Elvira appears in dark pants and faded burgundy topcoat, carrying a small trunk, seeking her runaway husband.  Kwiecien’s Don ingests a substance nasally, caresses Elvira, and disappears again while Leporello regales Donna Elvira by his sorting her husband’s female conquests (in this production represented by entries into a book) by country of origin.

That message obviously interests her, because, by the intensity in which she leafs through the book, she is obviously intent on drilling down into the data to identify those other women known to her that shared her experience.

[Below right: Zerlina (Claudia Mahnke) makes up with Masetto (Luca Pisaroni); edited image, based on a John Lee photograph, courtesy of San Francisco Opera.]

Now picnic tables are brought out with a boiling pot containing elements of a wedding dinner.  Mahnke, a mezzo Zerlina, has snared Pisaroni, a basso Masetto, assuring that the ensuing lively romance is secure in the lower registers of their characters’ vocal ranges.  As Don Giovanni arrives, invoking noblesse oblige to position himself for predatory purposes between bride and bridegroom, the sociopathic nature of Kwiecien’s Don is further confirmed.

Donna Elvira’s sudden intervention into the Don’s planned private time with Zerlina further disrupts the Don’s schemes to seduce her.  Zerlina leaves as Elvira strongly recommends, when Donna Anna and Don Ottavio appear.  By now, the lovers have changed into mourning clothes – she in a full-length black dress, he in an evening coat with thigh boots and black top hat – and make the acquaintance of Donna Elvira.

The opera’s four still-living members of the nobility (although Don Pedro will later return as a kind of Undead) enter into their first ensemble, Non di fidar, o misera during which Kwiecien’s Don works his charm on Donna Elvira, while trying to disqualify her testimony to the other couple.   When he tries also to seem the perfect gentleman to Donna Anna, it hits her suddenly that Giovanni is her father’s murderer and her attempted (or perhaps actual) rapist.

This spark of recognition leads into Anna’s first great aria Or sai chi l’onore.  In a striking approach to filling in some of the lightly-sketched elements of Lorenzo Da Ponte’s libretto, McVicar calls for a group of five mourners in 19th century clothes.  During Anna’s aria, preparations for the Commendatore’s burial take place.  As the aria ends she leads the funeral possession.

Then Castronovo sings his first aria, Dalla sua pace, as expected, with great elegance.  Soon Kweicien presents the first of his three solo arias (the Champagne Aria), exhibiting a prancing style of movement that he uses throughout the opera to define this self-absorbed character.  The trio of successive arias received rousing ovations (even though each artist was immediately sent offstage at aria’s end), with the reception for Kwiecien particularly noteworthy.

[Below: Elza van den Heever as Donna Anna; edited image, based on John Lee photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

The interplay between Kwiecien and Gradus with the confused and inebriated wedding party, and the spot-on comic display of jealousy, pique and reassurance between Pisaroni and Mahnke demonstrate that McVicar is as much master of the lighter elements of this opera as of its darker.  But the arrival of masked figures (Van den Heever, Castronovo and Robinson) lead to invitations to revels clearly intended to show how far the Don will push his high-risk behavior.

The unit set’s walls move to reveal the interior of Giovanni’s ballroom.  Giovanni makes a pass at one of the men serving chocolates.  Since there is an erotic interplay with the same manservant at the beginning of the later banquet scene, we are left to conclude that Leporello’s list of all the women the Don had seduced is an incomplete list of his sexual conquests.

The Minuet at the end of Act I as staged by Mc Vicar is a demonic affair.  As one observes the choreographed motions of the dancers, it is not impossible to recall the Day-0 dinner high-jinks in Tim Burton’s film “Beetle Juice”.

Soon Mozart’s genius directs our focus to the music of the septet that ends Act I, which shares with the later Rossini opera buffas the tradition of the opera’s principals expressing their confusion at the perplexity of events that have occurred so far.  Most of these characters, however, unlike their Rossini counterparts, are pretty self-aware of what the issues are, and what they need to do from this point on.

As a thunderclap ends the Act, Gradus’ Leporello, one who really is still confused, crosses himself to hedge his bets. So far, each of the principals in this performance has regaled us with one or more highly impressive solo arias, and participated in the kind of ensemble performance that meets the definition of “festival casting”.

To some extent, much of the comedy in the first few scenes of the McVicar’s second act would fit into any traditional production of “Don Giovanni”.  Kwiecien and Gradus evoked laughs as they duped Donna Elvira disguised in each other’s clothes.  Kwiecien, in his Leporello costume, sang the Serenade to Elvira’s maid beautifully, and was hilarious as he outwitted and scattered Masetto’s troops.

But when Pisaroni’s Masetto is tricked into handing his weapons over to Kwiecien’s disguised Giovanni, he receives a swift rifle butt to the testicles and multiple body blows.  Perhaps as evidence of a shred of humanity, the Don is content to give a disarmed man a savage beating, rather than murdering him.  Masetto will suffer another couple of slaps and blows as Mahnke’s Zerlina chides him on the consequences of jealousy, but she then gives him succor as he curls into a fetal position and places his head in her lap.

The funeral procession is over and the mourners with their torches return with the Don Ottavio and his betrothed to Donna Anna’s courtyard, where Donna Elvira and Leporello disguised as Don Giovanni have hidden from a supposed highwayman and Zerlina has come with her injured Masetto.  The ensuing sextet is Mozart as his most magical, and is a milestone in cementing a two-thirds majority in concerted opposition against the Don.

Then, two more arias are sung back-to-back, Don Ottavio’s Il mio tesoro presenting yet another triumph for Castronovo.  This was followed by a persuasive Mi tradi, showing the range of Robinson’s vocal and dramatic skills as Elvira. Presented in front of the stage curtains (drawn so that the stagehands can set up the Commendatore’s statue as the Graveyard’s focal point) the recitative preceding her aria has significance.  When she speaks of her seeing a grave opening at Don Giovanni’s feet, she points to the bones and skulls that can be seen at the tiles’ edge (a gesture which will have significance at the end of this production.)

The Graveyard scene was staged traditionally, except for the unusual posture of the Commendatore’s graveyard statue, obscuring its face so that all conversation between the Don, Leporello and the Commendatore is with Sigmundsson’s disembodied voice.  We will figure out why it was done this way during the banquet scene.

The ensuing scene between the noble lovers was affecting, with Castronovo kneeling, crouched forward on his legs, embracing a standing Donna Anna.  Her Non mir dir was Van Den Heever’s showpiece, and was greeted by the ovation that can occur when the Saturday night San Francisco Opera audiences find something that pleases them.

The preparations of Giovanni, Leporello and their servants for McVicar’s banquet scene suggest that if they had actually gotten the party going, it would have been a truly bacchanalian affair.  No sooner is the table set out with food and punchbowls filled with alcoholic delights, then the Don, critiquing snatches of operatic music from the 1780s, walks across the table in his bare feet, drinking from the punchbowls and stuffing his face with food.  He and Leporello even engage in a fraternity house style food-fight, when interrupted by Donna Elvira.

Playing with her emotions, Kwiecien’s Don first grabs her amorously and snuggles with her, before turning abusive and throwing wine and food at her.  When Sigmundsson’s Commendatore, for whom this banquet has been prepared, actually arrives, we hear the offstage screams of first Elvira, then Leporello.  At the Guest’s entrance onstage, we see that McVicar has dressed him, not as the walking statue we usually see, but as a zombie.

[Below: Commendatore Don Pedro (Kristinn Sigmundsson) shows up to the dinner to which he was invited; edited image, based on a John Lee photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

As the music of Mozart’s overture returns, the ghoulish visitor takes the Don’s hand and gives him the opportunity to repent. When Giovanni repeatedly refuses to acknowledge that he has been the monster that McVicar has portrayed, the banquet table descends into the floor, and from the sky a winged skeleton (the Angel of Death, performed by David Bier, an insert to our program informs us) appears.  Giovanni falls dead at the footlights on the broken tiles that lay among the bones and skulls, just as Elvira envisioned earlier.

Four officers arrive in Napoleanic style hats to make some official report on what might have happened, while the six characters who remain alive come to the footlights and point to the audience with the warning against choosing the dark side.

[Below: Don Giovanni (Mariusz Kwiecien), unrepentent; edited image, based on a John Lee photograph, courtesy of San Francisco Opera.]

Over the last 20 decades, Da Ponte’s libretto has had some important detractors, who see it as a mish-mash of ideas saved by the incomparable genius of Mozart’s music.  But I think this is another example of our own times being better attune to the issues raised by the opera, than its contemporary audiences.  Earlier this year, in my commentary on Gounod’s “Faust” and my review of San Diego’s production of Berg’s “Wozzeck”, I referred to the official practice in Germany and elsewhere in Europe of beheading women for adultery.  Most of the world now would regard that as state-sanctioned barbarism.

Our current systems of punishment and retribution recognize good and evil.  Those who choose to be evil will be punished.  In “Don Giovanni”, Masetto recognizes Giovanni as evil immediately, Donna Anna and Don Ottavio as soon as they have substantive suspicion of his being a murderer, as does Zerlina on the first solid evidence.  Leporello and especially Donna Elvira give Giovanni the benefit of the doubt until much closer to the opera’s end.

It is the zombie Commendatore who puts the issues in perspective.  Punishment for evil can be mitigated by evidence of true remorse.  Giovanni is guilty as charged, but may change his ultimate judgment.  And it is McVicar, by presenting Don Giovanni as both charming and lethal, who focuses the opera on the choice between darkness and righteousness, and on the opportunity for even those who have wandered onto the dark side to be saved through true repentence.

San Francisco Opera General Director David Gockley has committed his institution to McVicar’s drive to make opera of the kind he presents accessible to much wider audiences. McVicar’s “Don Giovanni” is one of the San Francisco Opera productions chosen for community outreach simulcasts, permitting access to free live performances of the operas in venues outside of the opera house.  The impact of this new accessibility of operatic performance is likely to be transformative.

For my reviews of recent Mozart opera performances at San Francisco Opera, see: S. F. “Nozze di Figaro” – July 2, 2006 and Warhorse Warriors: John Cox’ ‘Cosi Fan Tutte’ in S. F. – July 2, 2005.