The venerable Lyric Opera opened its 2014 season with a new production of Mozart’s “Don Giovanni”, the opera that opened the first Lyric Opera season 60 years ago.
The new production was created by Robert Falls, the Artistic Director of the even more venerable Goodman Theater, which is currently celebrating its 90th season.
Although “Don Giovanni” is not really moored to a specific historical era, Falls chose Spain in the 1920s as a reference point for sets and costumes, centering time and place in a land we associate with a level of machismo to which Giovanni would relate comfortably.
[Below: Don Giovanni (Mariusz Kwiecien, left) attempts the sexual conquest of Donna Anna (Marina Rebeka, right); edited image, based on a Todd Rosenberg photograph, courtesy of the Lyric Opera of Chicago.]
The sex-obsessed Don is a favorite character of the Polish baritone Mariusz Kwiecien, who played him memorably in the production of Sir David McVicar, previously reviewed on these pages [See Kwiecien Excels in McVicar’s Dark Side “Don Giovanni” – S. F. June 2, 2007.]
Falls gave Kwiecien license to further explore Don Giovanni’s nature, and the resulting portrait was extraordinary, an utterly charming but lethally sociopathic bad boy, who, except for some bad luck and an error in judgment in the final few hours of his life on earth, might have added another thousand or so names to Leporello’s catalogue.
Throughout the past 23 decades, including essays written even in 2104, Don Giovanni’s interactions with Donna Anna, Donna Elvira and Zerlina have met with moralistic disapproval (and the Don’s extraordinary demise in Falls’ final scene and the sextet at opera’s end explain why he got his just rewards).
[Below: the hands of Donna Anna (Marina Rebeka) are stained by the blood of her murdered father; edited image, based on a Todd Rosenberg photograph, courtesy of the Lyric Opera of Chicago.]
But Kwiecien’s Giovanni is a masterpiece in presenting an engaging antihero, in a performance that is wonderfully sung and impressively acted.
Staging “Don Giovanni” Anew
In an opera with eight characters, each of whose natures Mozart and Da Ponte reveal only in part, there is abundant opportunity for a director to discover new facets of each character.
For example, at the end of the catalogue aria in which Don Giovanni’s abundant sexual conquests are enumerated, Leporello consoles the distraught Elvira, and, to each character’s surprise and shock, they kiss.
[Below: the second scene in the 2014 Robert Falls production of Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” at the Lyric Opera of Chicago; edited image, based on a Todd Rosenberg photograph, courtesy of the Lyric Opera of Chicago.]
At opera’s end, when the participants in the final sextet pair off – Anna with Ottavio, Masetto with Zerlina, Elvira and Leporello briefly stare at one another, as if thinking, “what would it be like, if . . . “, then, both turn away and leave on opposite sides of the stage.
Since this is 1920s Spain, no one fights with swords. The nobles have pistols and Masetto a knife. In fact, Don Giovanni is bloodied when he hosts the Commendatore’s statue in his household, because Donna Elvira has shot him in the shoulder with his own pistol.
[Below: Don Giovanni (Mariusz Kwiecien, right) tries to distract Donna Elvira (Ana Maria Martinez, left) by seeming to give her attention; edited image, based on a Todd Rosenberg photograph, courtesy of the Lyric Opera of Chicago.]
In traditional staging of the opera, the scene with Masetto and his mates follows the scene in which Don Giovanni seeks to seduce Elvira’s maid. In Falls’ version the scenes are still consecutive, but the activites in each scene are simultaneous.
Masetto, his comrades sent on false missions, is pummeled by the Don, who then returns to his feminine conquest. Masetto lies on the ground until after Giovanni has made the maid.
[Below: Zerlina (Andriana Churchman, left) is charmed by the attentions of Don Giovanni (Mariusz Kwiecien, right); edited image, based on a Todd Rosenberg photograph, courtesy of the Lyric Opera of Chicago.]
The maid’s mistress, Donna Elvira, is as sexually motivated as the Don Giovanni. (What an explosive marriage that might have been had he stayed with her in Burgos instead of leaving, as we learn in the opera’s text, after three days of lovemaking.)
Arriving with the maid on a 1920s motorcycle, Elvira, played by soprano Ana Maria Martinez with the sexual aggression of the Carmen she sang a few weeks ago [see Review: A Second Look at the Lawless “Carmen” – Santa Fe Opera, August 2, 2014.]
In a departure from traditional staging, Martinez’ Donna Elvira shoots Don Giovanni in the shoulder when he rejects her for the last time, moments before he descends into Hell.
[Below: masked guests arrive at Giovanni’s banquet, who turn out to be Donna Elvira (Ana Maria Martinez, left front), Don Ottavio (Antonio Poli, center front) and Donna Anna (Marina Rebeka, right front. ]
If my description of Falls’ staging makes it sound irreverent and antithetical to the intentions of Mozart and Da Ponte, I can state unequivocally that it all works. Nothing in the music or text is in conflict with Falls interpretation.
[Below: Don Giovanni (Mariusz Kwiecien, center, standing) points a gun at his servant Leporello (Kyle Ketelsen, left, on floor); edited image, based on a Todd Rosenberg photograph, courtesy of the Lyric Opera of Chicago.]
It is the result of the combined genius of Mozart and Da Ponte that completely different conceptualizations of the motivations of the characters work so seamlessly with their composition.
The Operatic Performances
Kwieicen’s pairing with Kyle Ketelsen, for whom Leporello is a signature role, worked well. Their interactions were always a delight, and when each disguised himself as the other, the results were quite convincing.
[Below: Masetto (Michael Sumuel, left), Zerlina (Andriana Churchman, second from left) and Don Ottavio (Antonion Poli, right) mistake Leporello (Kyle Ketelsen, second from right in mask) for his master; edited image, based on a Todd Rosenberg photograph, courtesy of the Lyric Opera of Chicago.]
The women were vocally strong, the Donna Anna of Latvian soprano Marina Rebeka deserving special praise.
The three women were strong. Marina Rebeka was espeically impressive, and Puerto Rican soprano Ana Maria Martinez’ Mi tradi was a musical high point of the evening. Andriana Churchman was an affecting Zerlina.
Antonio Poli sang Don Ottavio’s two great arias stylishly. Michael Sumuel, in his Lyric Opera debut, was an engaging Masetto and Andrea Silvestrelli a sonorous Commendatore.
[Below: A wounded Don Giovanni (Mariusz Kwiecien, left) refuses to repent, despite the warnings of the Commendatore’s statue (Andrea Silvestrelli, right) that he otherwise will be taken to Hell; edited image, based on a Todd Rosenberg photograph, courtesy of the Lyric Opera of Chicago.]
Although the performance was the last one of the season, it was notable for its solid cast and conducting and the inventive ideas of Director Robert Falls.