If there is an unequivocal argument for continuing to produce big classical opera as part of Washington National Opera’s mission, then this production of Don Giovanni makes the case. Weighing in pound for pound of set, number of union orchestra players, a large international cast, and over three and a half hours, it’s a hefty effort and price tag. I, for one, would not have wanted to miss one note or moment.
I’m not always such an admirer of this Mozart work, despite that it’s considered for many the operatic “big deal.” It can get sloggy. Its quixotic mixture of comedy and tragedy which Mozart, like Shakespeare, embraced wholeheartedly, can be very un-funny when opera singers and their directors try too hard. But this production, directed by British director John Pascoe, gets about everything “just right.”
It helps that this man is a triple threat. He also designed the sets and costumes for the production. (He has a real feel for how to dress both for character and body type. You can understand, for instance, seeing this show, how he started out as Dame Joan Sutherland’s costume designer, what with the sumptuous black and gold drapery he designed for Donna Anna, topped by a drop-dead gorgeous Ascot hat.) How beautifully the columns and patina wall surfaces were side-lit by designer Donald Edmund Thomas, as if everything were brushed with honey-gold. Despite there rarely being adequate rehearsal time to stage opera, there seems to be a coherence to this Don Giovanni that allows the whole production to gel beautifully.
First, I have to say, coming from the theatre side of music-theatre, there was the superb casting. The shapes and sizes of the figures, the energy and physicality of each character, and the defining staging and choreography given to them were believable from the first moment through to the last.
From Veronica Cangemi’s lithe, girlish peasant Zerlina to the statuesque Meagan Miller as the noblewoman Donna Anna, whose father is killed by lover Giovanni, everyone on stage nailed an easily identifiable personage. Argentine tenor Juan Francesco Gatell, as Donna Anna’s fiancé, was a totally credible lover of the buttoned-up-a-little-too-tightly type (and therefore no serious match to the great lover Don Giovanni.) His arias were all the more plaintive and affecting as if the poor man knew he had little chance of stirring his woman either against the memory of a “giant” of a father or a world-class lover like Don G.
Likewise, Aleksey Bogdanov as Masetto, didn’t shy away from playing fully Zerlina’s slightly pudgy, silly, but good souled peasant lover. Whether he stamped his foot in protestation at Zerlina’s flirtation with the big guy or crawled doggy-style after her on all fours, he was an adorable and memorable Masetto. Solomon Howard made a splendid Commendatore, filling well the size needed for this character on stage and in voice.
British bass-baritone Andrew Foster-Williams is, to my mind brilliantly cast as the servant and sidekick (well more side-kicked) of Don Giovanni. He sprints all over the stage and realizes every comic moment because he knows the trick is to playing each moment for real. When he is commanded to dress as his master and distract lover number three of the main trio (there were reportedly 1003 other lovers in Spain alone according to Lorenzo da Ponte’s libretto,) he gets so into the flirtation that his actions give Don Giovanni a run for his money and coax his blackguard boss back on stage to take care of his own romantic business.
I have already alluded to the clarity of direction. Pascoe knew what he wanted to get across with this story and these people. And he did. I haven’t spoken yet of Barbara Frittoli as Donna Elvira, but in some ways, Pascoe has driven this whole production by defining a new angle for this character.
Let’s face it, Donna Elvira in many productions can be a whiny, hysterical bitch. Don Giovanni keeps telling her he doesn’t want her, but she keeps showing up anyway. (Embarrassing.) In this production, she is first introduced accompanied by a nun and a child in arms, which instantly makes her claims on Giovanni’s heart and responsibilities more serious. Pascoe has her playing Elvira as not just another lover, but the woman who truly loves Giovanni and whom he truly loves, if only he could pull himself together and grow up. Even as Elvira berates him, she is also kissing him. For his part, Giovanni seems drawn back to her and equally incapable of leaving her cleanly. This is the most sympathetic Donna Elvira I have ever seen because she conveys the depth of her love and anguish for this man she knows all too well as a “force of nature”. (And, after all, haven’t we known others with such notable “forces” on our political and other public stages who simply could not keep their pants zipped?)
Pascoe has made another choice, brilliantly to my mind, in steering the drama so that Don Giovanni is not the only seducer. He stages a scene between Zerlina and Masetto where she uses all her wiles to get him to crawl after her on all fours. Likewise, Donna Anna plays a “fruit interdit” game with Ottavio that is an erotically charged manipulation.
The biggest challenge of mounting Don Giovanni is, of course, how to cast and portray the man himself. Especially with contemporary attitudes about politically correct behavior towards women, the question is how to make women stand to stand him? Pascoe solved that by casting Ildar Abdrazakov, the sexiest man in the universe.
This Russian bass not only delivers gorgeous swarthy looks, he plays the character with such joie de vivre that he successfully seduces the audience into seeing his side of things and enjoying the game of conquest along with him, even as we wag our fingers at him. His Don Giovanni never descends into slimy villainy, even though he, of course, can be careless and even cruel. In fact, if anything, this Don Giovanni succeeds as a tragic hero. His flaw (for classically a hero must have one) is his irrepressible and fearless love of women combined with an unchecked exuberance that gets him into trouble. But even at the end, as he stares down Death, he can’t back down because, well, he can’t. He can’t be contrite because he’s had such a great ride – and then some. If he’s carried down to hell, then he carries us with him, willingly.
Abdrazakov is not just a Hollywood-styled matinee idol however but a singer with significant chops and an impressive resumé in different music-theatre genres. He brings great nuance and understanding of his role into his singing, modulating every aria to suit each of the three women differently. His intimate “Là ci darem la mano” with the young Zerlina was as warm and gentle as if he were strumming her body with his voice. He used a more formal sound and infused the scene with heroic-lover gestures that Donna Anna would appreciate in “Finch’han del vino.” Finally alone on stage, Abdrazakov took a further chance, sitting at ground level leaning against a wall and singing “Deh, vieni alla finestra” so simply, as if he has taken off the mask he must always put on around women – not just to get his way but genuinely to please them. This “unmasked” aria might have been his most affecting of the evening.
The rest of the singing was also most enjoyable. While one of the cognoscenti might quibble about a certain artist’s vocal quality (Don’t quibble, Sybil,) for most of us, the affect of the individual voices and the blend in the many trios becoming quartets becoming sextets of Mozart’s opera were consistently delightful. Mozart’s ability to interrupt one number and push into the next was informed by Phillippe Auguin’s sure conducting which made for a dazzling joy ride of sound through the whole evening.
If you can’t take your seat at the Kennedy Center, take in this Mozart classic Don Giovanni in a live broadcast on September 29 at Nationals Park. It will give a whole new meaning to the words “play ball!”
Don Giovanni, Composed by Amadeus Mozart, Libretto by Lorenzo da Ponte. Director, Set & Costume Designer John Pascoe, Conducted by Philippe Auguin. Featuring Ildar Abdrazakov, Meagan Miller, Barbara Frittoli, Juan Francisco Gatell, Andrew Foster-Williams, Veronica Cangemi,, Aleksey Bogdanov,, and Soloman Howard. Paulo Szot sings the role of Giovanni on October 9. Produced by Washington National Opera. Reviewed by Susan Galbraith.