Review: Meachem, Vinco, Lead Cast of Imaginatively Staged “Don Giovanni” – San Francisco Opera, October 23, 2011

Teams of artists from Italy and the United States collaborated in creating the San Francisco Opera’s imaginative new production of Mozart’s “Don Giovanni”. Team Italy consisted of Conductor Nicola Luisotti, Soprano Serena Farnocchia singing Donna Elvira (her San Francisco Opera debut season), and four artists for whom this production was their American debut – Basso Marco Vinco (the Leporello) and Stage Director Gabriele Lavia, Set Dessigner Alesssandro Camera, and Costume, Wig and Makeup Designer Andrea Viotti.

Team USA consisted of three artists who had appeared previously in San Francisco Opera performances. Baritone Lucas Meachem (Don Giovanni), Soprano Ellie Dehn (Donna Anna) and First Year Adler Fellow Basso Ryan Kuster (Masetto). Three other Americans were debuting at San Francisco Opera in this production: Kate Lindsey (Zerlina), Shawn Mathey (Don Ottavio) and Morris Robinson (The Commendatore).

The production, a mix of period dress and furniture with an avant-garde employment of 38 large mirrors that descend in various formations when called upon by the stage director, provided the matrix for Lavia’s skillful staging of the interactions between “Don Giovanni’s” eight characters.

Although five of the singers (Vinco, Farnocchia, Lindsey, Mathey and Robinson) were new to San Francisco audiences, I have posted my reviews of their excellent performances, respectively, in Paris, Toronto, Santa Fe, Chicago and Los Angeles, and so had high expectations of the quality of singing in this Luisotti-led new production.

The eminent basso Ferruccio Furlanetto (who is scheduled to sing the title role in Verdi’s “Attila” next summer in San Francisco in a new Lavia-Camera-Viotti production, conducted by Luisotti) has said that the Mozartean roles of Figaro and Don Giovanni are for young men to sing. Meachem is not yet in his mid-30s, but has really begun to dig into the character of the Spanish libertine.

[Below: Lucas Meachem as Don Giovanni; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

I had first seen Meachem’s conceptualization of the Don at the Santa Fe Opera, in which his Zerlina, as in this production, was Kate Lindsey (see my review at The Man Who Loved Women: Lucas Meachem’s Empathetic Don Giovanni – Santa Fe, July 31, 2009.)

Meachem explained his ideas about the Don’s behavior in my interview with him (See Rising Stars: An Interview with Lucas Meachem, Part I and Rising Stars: An Interview with Lucas Meachem, Part II), and the Don’s strong belief that it is society, the Commendatore and the forces of Hell who are in the wrong, thereby preventing himself from repenting. I found that Meachem’s earlier approach to the role was consistent with Lavia’s ideas of staging the new production.

Impressed as I was with Meachem’s singing in Santa Fe, Los Angeles and Chicago and in the roles he sang in San Francisco between 2005 and 2008, it is in the two Mozart roles he has sung in San Francisco under Luisotti that I believe have confirmed his stature as a great Mozartean baritone (see Copley Directs, Luisotti Conducts, Sparkling “Nozze” Ensemble – San Francisco Opera, October 3, 2010.)

In “Don Giovanni” the character who spends the most time onstage is not the Don but his discontented servant, Leporello. Marco Vinco, who was a madcap Mustafa in Paris (see my review at Genaux, Brownlee and Vinco Romp in Rossini’s “L’Italiana”: Garnier Opera House, Paris – October 8, 2010), proved equally effective in the Mozart role. Secure in the vocal requirements of this complex role, and very funny in the part’s comic antics, he provided another notch in the very long belt of European artists choosing the San Francisco Opera for their American debuts).

[Below: Marco Vinco as Leporello; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

From the earliest scenes, the audience begins to perceive the thematic structure of the new production. At first the stage is bare, except that it is lined at the walls on each side and at the back of the stage with chairs contemporary with the opera’s premiere (1787).

But with the disappearance of a stage curtain a bed is visible in which Meachem’s Don Giovanni and Ellie Dehn’s Donna Anna are engaged in obviously amorous acts. (Don Giovanni’s seductive powers are represented throughout the opera by his covering the face of the woman he intends to seduce by an unfolded handkerchief on which he places a kiss. At one point the Don even uses his handkerchief to kiss Masetto’s face.)

Because of the ambiguity of the circumstances in the first scene, stage directors always must decide whether Giovanni is forcing himself upon Anna, or whether it is a consensual act that has been interrupted with disastrous results by the appearance of Anna’s father, the Commendatore. Lavia has Dehn’s Anna in ecstasy as Giovanni covers her face. Yet, attitudes can suddenly change – even among consenting adults – if, during the nuit d’amour, one partner kills the father of the other.

That scene is followed by one in which Donna Elvira (Serena Farnocchia) sits in a swing while Vinco’s Leporello quantifies the degree of the Don’s infidelities to her, should her claim of having married the Don prove true. Farnocchia, who had  proved her adeptness in coloratura singing when I saw her last in Toronto (see my review at The Donizetti Revival, Second Stage: Stephen Lawless’ “Maria Stuarda” in Toronto – May 4, 2010), used that coloratura skill for Elvira’s great arias and ensembles. Meachem’s Don Giovanni simply used his handkerchief to cover her face, although its effectiveness with her was, by now, marginal.

[Below: Leporello (Marco Vinco) reveals to Donna Elvira (Serena Farnocchia) just how busy the man she believes to be her husband has been; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

The scene of the wedding of Zerlina and Masetto is the opportunity for the San Francisco Opera chorus to join the merriment. The peasant couple were an athletic duo, with Lindsey’s Zerlina doing a cartwheel and Kuster’s Masetto a forward somersault.

[Below: The scene of the peasant wedding; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Lindsey’s Zerlina was probably more sexually provocative than anyone appearing in this role in San Francisco history spreading her amply-petticoated legs while lying on a bench to distract Masetto from his fury.

[Below: Masetto (Ryan Kuster, left) dances with his bride, Zerlina (Kate Lindsey); edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

The Donna Anna, Ellie Dehn, last year was the Countess Almaviva to Meachem’s Count in Luisotti’s first venture into conducting a Mozart opera in San Francisco. Although Shawn Mathey, her Don Ottavio, is in his San Francisco Opera debut season, he and Meachem were fellow Athenians, respectively Lysander and Demetrius, last season at the Lyric Opera of Chicago (see my review at Britten’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream” in Chicago: Enchanting, Luminous, Hilarious – Lyric Opera, November 17, 2010.)

Mathey was a stylish Don Ottavio, his voice blending well with Dehn’s in their ensembles together, and performing Ottavio’s two great arias Dalla sua pace and Il mio tesoro elegantly. He and Dehn were also persuasive actors, making believable their strategic bonding after what we the audience know was her amorous if badly-ending affair with the other Don.

[Below: Don Ottavio (Shawn Mathey, above) pledges to Donna Anna (Ellie Dehn) that he will avenge her father’s death; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

All of Andrea Viotti’s costumes seemed right for this opera, with the masks worn by Ottavio, Anna and Elvira particularly memorable.

[Below: Don Giovanni (Lucas Meachem, second from right in sunglasses) invites Don Ottavio (Shawn Mathey, left), Donna Elvira (Serena Farnocchia, second from left) and Donna Anna (Ellie Dehn, right) to his party; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

This production concentrates on the relationship between the Commendatore (Morris Robinson) who appears to represent the forces of Law and Order in the afterlife and Giovanni, who, as noted above, feels he has done nothing for which he needs to repent. (His slaying of the Commendatore, he might suggest, was an act of self-defense.) The opera in this staging is shorn of the final sextet in which the two couples with Elvira and Leporello do a bit of moralizing, thus focusing the ending on Giovanni’s quite effectively staged disappearance into the underworld.

The scene in the graveyard and the appearance of the Stone Guest at Dinner must be recorded as highlights of this production. Morris Robinson’s sturdy basso added the right sonority to this ghostly presence.  (For my review of another of Robinson’s portraits, see: Shining L. A. Opera “Magic Flute” on Sunny Matinee Day – January 11, 2009.)

[Below: Don Giovanni (Lucas Meachem, right) expresses his defiance to the statue of the Commendatore (Morris Robinson, right); edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

The excellent musical performance was shepherded by Maestro Luisotti, who seems always to achieve a vibrant orchestral response whenever he conducts. Each phrase of this familiar opera was given attention by the Maestro. Recitatives were given special treatment, with both a harpsichord played by Bryndon Hassman, accompanied by Cellist Thalia Moore, and an ancient fortepiano, an instrument that Mozart would have known, played by Luisotti himself.

[Below: Don Giovanni (Lucas Meachem, seated left) invites the Statue of the Commendatore (Morris Robinson, seated right) to eat, as Leporello (Marco Vinco, center below) cowers under the table; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

In my experience every opera that Nicola Luisotti conducts results in new insights into the scores. He now, in consecutive seasons, has performed two of the three Mozart-Da Ponte operas in San Francisco, to great distinction.

Having now seen great productions of the four Mozart “relationship” operas – “Abduction from the Seraglio” in Strasbourg, France; “Nozze di Figaro” in Paris; “Cosi fan Tutte” in Los Angeles, and “Don Giovanni” in San Francisco, all within a six month period, my long held appreciation for Mozart’s dramatic genius gains strength with each performance. I will have more to say on this subject in a subsequent essay.

I would unhestitatingly recommend the remaining performances of this season’s “Don Giovanni”.