Review: Dupuis and Pisaroni Lead International Cast for Michael Cavanagh’s New “Don Giovanni” Production – San Francisco Opera, June 12, 2022

I attended a Sunday matinee performance of the third permutation of Michael Cavanagh’s interrelated productions of Mozart’s three da Ponte operas. My reviews of the Cavanagh conceptualizations of “The Marriage of Figaro” [Review: Strong Cast, Arresting New Production for “Marriage of Figaro” – San Francisco Opera, October 13, 2019] and “Cosi fan Tutte” [Review: “Cosi fan Tutte” – Nicely Sung, Imaginatively Staged – San Francisco Opera, November 21, 2021] were posted previously.

The third opera takes place in what Cavanagh predicts will be a “dystopian” future of the late 2080s. The building that served as a colonial mansion in the time of the American Revoution and a country club during the 1930s, will show obvious signs of structural damage. In Cavanagh’s words, the production is set in “a time of finality and conclusion . . . in a now-ruined world, destroyed [by] . . . human nature at its worst. Greed, desire and hunger for power, without regard for the impacts on our fellow human beings, has . . . loosed monsters on the world.”

Don Giovanni is one of those monsters. This is not a production that suggests that Don Giovanni has any redeeming qualities.

Etienne Dupuis’ Don Giovanni and Luca Pisaroni’s Leporello

Don Giovanni was performed by French Canadian baritone in his San Francisco Opera debut. He played the role suavely and sang with elegance. His bravura performance of the Champagne aria Finch’ han dal vino demonstrated a talent that the San Francisco Opera should secure for future projects.

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

Dupuis was teamed beautifully with the Leporello of Italian bass Luca Pisaroni. Pisaroni’s three previous roles in San Francisco were the peasant Masetto [Review: Kwiecien Excels in McVicar’s Dark Side “Don Giovanni” – San Francisco Opera, June 2, 2007], the nobleman’s manservant Figaro [Review: Copley Directs, Luisotti Conducts, Sparkling “Nozze” Ensemble – San Francisco Opera, October 3, 2010] and the nobleman Almaviva [Review: San Francisco Opera’s Youthful Cast Excels in “Marriage of Figaro” – June 14, 2015].

Despite their formal nobleman-servant status, Leporello’s and Giovanni’s relationship is that of constant, if often uneasy, companions. Cavanagh’s direction and the obvious chemistry between Dupuis and Pisaroni assured that the interactions between the two artists would be among the performance’s highlights.

[Below: Leporello (Luca Pisaroni, right) directs the attention of Don GIovanni (Etienne Dupuis, left) to a matter of interest; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, couortesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

An hilarious example of the Giovanni-Leporello high jinx was Giovanni’s scheme to exchange his clothes with Leporello. This furthered twin objectives of the Don. Leporello, wearing a nobleman’s fine coat for his disguise as Giovanni could whisk the lovesick Donna Elvira out of sight. The Don, in a manservant’s garb. could then pursue the conquest of Elvira’s maid.

My favorite moment of this grand deception was Dupuis’ superb performance of the aria Deh vieni alla finestra to Elvira’s maid. His serenata not only attracted the amorous attention of the Maid, but of several other women who happened to be nearby.

[Below: Don Giovanni (Etienne Dupuis) disguises himself in Leporello’s clothes; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

In this production (even more than usual), Leporello is an arresting presence. Pisaroni’s combination of physicality, credible acting style, comedic timing, and security with Mozart’s tongue-twisting patter made Pisaroni’s servant a star.

Pisaroni shines in scenes in which he is onstage alone, such as the opera’s opening scene when he is the sentinel during the Don’s botched conquest of Donna Anna.

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

 

Loporello’s most famous aria Madamina, cataloguing the Don’s sexual conquests, was staged imaginatively. Nicole Car’s Donna Elvira was seated as Leporello displayed the names of the Don’s every sexual partner on a wall beside her. The projector Leporello uses for this purpose also provides him the ability to create shadow figures of the various shapes and sizes of women to which Don Giovanni is attracted.

[Below: Using a projector, Leporello (Luca Pisaroni, standing left), projects the names of Don GIovanni’s sexual conquests on the house’s walls to the amazement of Donna Elvira (Nicole Car, seated right)]; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Adela Zaharia’s Donna Anna, Amitai Pati’s Don Ottavio and Soloman Howard’s Commendatore

The opera’s first ensemble introduces Dupuis’ Don Giovanni, German soprano Adela Zaharia’s Donna Anna, District of Columbia bass Soloman Howard’s Commendatore and New Zealand tenor Amitai Pati’s Don Ottavio.

[Below: Don Ottavio (Amitai Pati, top left), attempts to console Donna Anna (Adela Zaharia, center) who is grieving the death of her father, the Commendatore (Soloman Howard, on ground, below); edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

The first scene provided San Francisco Opera audiences with the opportunity to hear Zaharia, a 2017 winner of Placido Domingo’s international Operalia contest, whose Los Angeles Opera debut I had reported on previouslly [Review: Spectacular Los Angeles Opera Debuts in “Rigoletto” for Michael Fabiano, Adela Zaharia – May 27, 2018.]

Zaharia negotiated Donna Anna’s notorious high tessitura and challenging passages of coloratura effectively, with brilliant performances of the showpiece arias Or sai chi l’onore and Non mir dir.

[Below: Adela Zaharia as Donna Anna; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

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In his most important San Francisco Opera role to date, former Adler Fellow Amitai Pati assumed the role of Don Ottavio, with demonstrable command of the vocal control requirements of a Mozartian lyric tenor.

The performance used Mozart’s 1788 Vienna edition of the score, rather than Mozart’s original 1787 Prague version, with which audiences are most familiar. The result is the performance lacked Ottavio’s aria Il mio tesoro, and his aria Dalla sua pace occurred earlier in the performance than the “standard” version. That noted, Pati sang the Viennese version with distinction.

[Below: Amitai Pati as Don Ottavio; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photoograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

In this production, Howard’s Commendatore only appears onstage for his fatal encounter with Giovanni in defense of Donna Anna, although Howard’s voice is heard – to chilling effect – through a loudspeaker in the opera’s ominous final scene.

[Below: Don Giovanni (Etienne Dupuis, below, in bottom fourth of photograph, is overwhelmed by the presence of his dinner guest, the stone bust of the Commendatore (voiced by Soloman Howard); edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Nicole Car’s Donna Elvira, Christina Gansch’s Zerlina and Cody Quattlebaum’s Masetto

In her San Francisco Opera debut, Australian-born soprano Nicole Car (who is married to the Don Giovanni, Etienne Dupuis) performed the role of Donna Elvira brilliantly. Elvira is the character who is most invested in effectuating any pathway to redemption to which Giovanni might agree, yet implacable in her determination that the Don’s addictive pursuit of women shall in every case be thwarted. Car negotiated Elvira’s powerhouse arias and ensembles superbly, and was a stunningly effective actor.

[Below: Nicole Car as Donna Elvira; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

I had praised Austrian soprano San Francisco Opera debut in the Ariostean role of Dorinda three years earlier [Review: A Finely Sung “Orlando” Melds Handel’s Seductive Music with Harry Fehr’s Surreal Staging – San Francisco Opera, June 9, 2019.] She proved also to be an affecting Zerlina, in her duet La ci darem la mano with Dupuis’ Don Giovanni, and in her arias and ensembles with her bridegroom, Masetto.

A graduate of San Francisco Opera’s Merola Young Artists’ programs, Maryland bass-baritone Cody Quattlebaum was a sympathetic presence as Masetto in his duets with his lover, Gansch’s Zerlina. I especially enjoyed Quattlebaum’s interactions with the performance’s Leporello, Luca Pisaroni, who himself had been a great Masetto 15 years earlier in his San Francisco Opera debut.

[Below: Christina Gansch(left) as Zerlina and Cody Quattelbaum (right) as Masetto; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

The Vienna version of “Don Giovanni” includes a duet between Zerlina and Leporello, whom the peasant bride has captured. In my decades of attending “Don Giovanni” performances, I’ve only seen it staged once before, and that as a casual encounter.

Cavanagh has provided an elaborate staging in which a lassoed Leporello has been tied to a wooden chair, allowing Gansch’s Zerlina to take her revenge on the Don’s slippery servant. All of Mozart’s operatic music is interesting, and that of the duet is likable, but I personally would trade restoration of Don Ottavio’s aria Il mio tesoro in exchange for exclusion of this curious scene.

[Below: Zerlina (Christina Gansch, right) has temporarily captured Leporello (Luca Pipsaroni, left); edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Maestro Bertrand de Billy and the San Francisco Opera Orchesstra; John Keene and the San Francisco Opera Chorus

French conductor Bertrand de Billy presided over the San Francisco Opera Orchestra, demonstrating his love for Vienna version of “Don Giovanni”. Although several of Mozart’s additions to this version have made it into the opera’s “standard” edition, the complete version is seldom performed. I found it an interesting experience, although I still prefer the mix of the Prague and Vienna editions that have come to constitute a “standard performance”.

[Below: Maestro Bertrand de Billy; edited image, based on a Marco Borggreve photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

“Don Giovanni” is the first San Francisco Opera production whose chorus is under the direction of Pennsylvania chorus director John Keene, taking on the position after the retirement of Scottish chorus director Ian Robertson, after 35 years of the chorus’ helm. Under Keene’s leadership, the San Francisco Opera Chorus continued performing at the level of excellence for which it is well known.

Michael Cavanagh’s Production, Erhard Rom’s Scenic Design, and Constance Hoffman’s Costumes.

This is the final chapter of Canadian director Michael Cavanagh’s and Washington state designer Erhard Rom’s ambitious effort to link the three Mozart-Da Ponte operas to a single structure situated in the mid-Atlantic region of the United States.

California designer Constance Hoffman created an array of costumes, the stylish women’s costumes for the principals representing a mix of periods, the steampunk fashions for the chorus suggesting the dystopian future.

The final scene is a spectacular tour de force, in which a massive stone image of the Commendatore splits apart in the final scene to unleash the forces of Hell onto the unrepentant Don Giovanni.

[ Below: The unrepentant Don Giovanni (Etienne Dupuis) is devoured by the flames of Hell; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtessy of the San Francisco Opera ]

Recommendation

I recommend this cast and production of “Don Giovanni” both to the veteran opera goer and the person new to opera.