It was inevitable. Don Giovanni would have to face the match of his life against the #MeToo movement. The problem is this production, not two years after the resplendent WNO production directed by John Pascoe, not only brought down the man, but the production itself, and all but poor Amadeus Mozart.
The stakes were high in this fight. At its core was whether the man we’ll call “Don G,” the man whose catalogue of conquests includes 1003 Spanish ladies and scores of others, is and only is a sexual predator and exploiter of women (in the mode of Harvey Weinstein,) or if he is what one First Lady called “a force of nature” (think Mick Jagger in his day, for whom even several heterosexual men would proclaim, “Well, I wouldn’t throw him out of bed!”)
Now, I am not so stinky a purist in my opera viewing to insist on “not messing” with a tried and true classic. (I had just seen the Metropolitan Opera’s Agrippina and the bold, iconoclastic update and you could have knocked me with a feather.) But a production has to have dramatic logic to compel and convince. In equal measure, a director’s intention has to support, clearly as possible, what the composer has laid down as his intentions in the music, the librettist in the text.
Try as I did, I kept getting lost with things not adding up. Let’s start with the set, lighting, and costumes.
The pre-show curtain displayed a scene of cavorting feminine pulchritude in the classic style. But following the overture, when the picture dissolved and the opera began, we were suddenly plunged into what looked like the vestibule of I. M Pei’s East Wing of the National Gallery, sharply angled walls and other modern architectural features, including a ramp with glass wall and steel bannister. This choice clashed with other rather graceless elements such as the skylight that seemed to have been salvaged from an ugly Federal building in downtown Washington. The two-storied window affair did not serve the purpose well either as a gallery for the half-clad women in white, ghosts, looking down on the proceedings, or scenes between the main characters. The massive set framing device drew attention to the generalized cluelessness of staging of supernumeraries, including early on one poor soul just wandering off before their scene ended. It also blocked the more prominent characters from being seen (and sometimes heard) unless you were in the most centered seats. (Donna Anna with fiancé Don Ottavio and more importantly her struggle fending off the assault from masked predator Don Giovanni that starts the plot.)
The lighting did no favors to the singers’ faces. Many times cast members were lost in shadows. (At other times, the blocking was at fault, servants too close in and downstage of key singers they masked them or a lead heading off into the shadows having clumsily to clear a prop.)
Curiously, both set and lighting instruments shared with the Samson and Delilah production in rep achieved coherence there. Was it due to lack of rehearsal time on stage for this production? Mounting opera is a bear. But even in the last banquet scene, where a steeply “raked” table and overturned chairs suggested a debauched party had just taken place and offered opportunities to ground this story specifically in a kick-ass climax, the set pieces were not used or added in any way to the action.
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If the set was mostly modern and the ghost women generally “timeless,” represented by an assemblage of white, mostly undergarments from different periods, then why dress the main characters in heavy 18th century garb?
All this forced the cast, and especially the women, to stand and deliver for the most part. Only Don Giovanni and his servant Leporello enjoyed using the stage floor, stretching themselves out, and creating a more informal (and frankly enjoyable) relationship with the audience.
The singers had prepared well, and rightly so, for this canonical work in classic opera. There were moments where certain arias brought Mozart back into focus. Bass-baritone Kyle Ketelsen, as the servant Leporello, dominated the stage every time he entered, not only because of his deliciously strong physical and vocal presence, but because with sheer confidence he made the proceedings work for the character: he seemed appropriately more critically judging of his master in this vision of the opera.
Vanessa Vasquez possesses a shimmering bell-like sound and unencumbered, she is equally compelling in arias like “Or sai, chi l’onore” as in Mozart’s deft ensembles.
Keri Alkema (Donna Elvira) shines particularly in “Mi trade quell’alma” when alone, she sinks to the floor. Dramatically it’s a high point in this production, as if a camera has rolled in for a close up. The singer is allowed to do what she is meant to do, bring us into the psychological inner workings of her mind. The aria is so beautiful, her expressed love so sympathetic, it makes a case for Don G.
The entrance and singing of the powerful Peter Volpe as the stern Commendatore grounds us in Mozart’s “Come to Jesus” moment. (How appropriately in this Lenten season to get the call to remind us of our own misdeeds.)
Don Giovanni closes March 22, 2020. DCTS details and tickets
Norman Garrett presented the most interesting reinterpretation, eschewing the usual presentation of Masetto as a buffoonish, stock character and instead making him a strong man whose only fault is he is socially defined outside the economic and entitled power of the Don. His affection and need to protect his fiancée/bride Zerlina felt real. His struggle and outrage made him in many ways the most sympathetic character of the evening, and therefore Don Giovanni’s cruelty came across as horrific, literally kicking the man as if he were a dog when he’s down.
This and other directing choices pushes Don Giovanni into being pretty unlikeable, and so we lose, dare I say, the delicious amorality of the character. (It raises the problem, unsolved in this production, why women but especially Donna Elvira swears she loves him and keeps coming back.) Ryan McKinny seems to address the balance only when he sings with and relates to his sidekick Ketelsen (Leporello.) There is also one sublime moment where in “Deh, vieni alla finestra,” the simple staging and sweetness of Don G’s serenade juxtaposed against his object of desire, cast as a simple, underage girl. The aria becomes both beautiful and creepy, and suddenly I get what I think Meeker has intended.
Others struggled with the concept. Alek Shrader, who had made such a strong impression as Candide in 2018, seemed slightly insecure in his delivery and tight in his upper notes and could not successfully rise out of the production’s heavy-handed treatment of men to generate sympathy for the male species.
Vanessa Becerra never rose to the incandescence and spunkiness that the role of Zerlina requires. Perhaps the director’s interpretation would not support this character, but I would wager Zerlina possesses as much sexual appetite and vitality as the Don and certainly enters into the liaison with curiosity and enthusiasm. Becerra’s approach felt somewhat muted, her posture slightly collapsed, and her eyes too often downward glancing and shaded.
I was mystified by many of the staging choices of Director E. Loren Meeker, which to my mind made the drama overly heavy, even turgid. Donna Elvira’s entrance should be fueled by frustration and despair. Instead of barreling down that ramp to discover and confront her former lover, she takes it in a slow 2/4 tempo in her voluminous and heavy skirt, taking time to draw out a hat pin and remove her hat. Her second aria, that should be raging, something like, “I want your head on a plate,” mysteriously never cranks, perhaps in the director’s fear that this female character appear “mad” and “obsessed.”
Similarly, the Lady Ghosts mostly drifted in slow crosses and stood around like frozen statues. The Chorus, when it did spill on, added little except a slight ruffle of energy. So little attention had been given to directing them with specific actions.
Another choice, less baffling perhaps because it did offer greater carrying power to the singers in the acoustically challenging, vocally compromising Opera House, was the repeated and distracting closing in of the monstrous side panels which forced the singers into a narrow band downstage. They had no choice but to “stand and deliver” center stage or line up for Mozart’s sextets and septets. It made no sense dramatically. A case in point is when Donna Ana and Don Ottavio have a difficult and intimate duet and she has to ask him to wait another year before consummating their alliance. (In this production it should have been a wretchedly difficult and heartbreaking moment where a female victim of attempted rape finally speaks to the one person she can trust, and instead we have several other people trapped close and aimlessly looking away.) Equally unfulfilled dramatically is when Donna Elvira announces her decision to go off to a convent. In the moving construction zone of a set, the scene became silly, and the announcements had many in the audience titter.
So perhaps when Don G gets pulled down to hell, it is a somewhat merciful conclusion, for performers and audience who deserved better. Certainly Mozart did. My apologies to Conductor Evan Rogister: I couldn’t always find the music through the confused rigmarole. Let’s be grateful for Washington National Opera’s Orchestra; every man and woman of them rallied on standing up for the right of the artist to complete a vision and gift us with beautiful music.
Don Giovanni. Composed by Amadeus Mozart. Libretto by Lorenzo da Ponte. Conducted by Evan Rogister. Directed by E. Loren Meeker. Set Designed by Erhard Rom. Costumes Designed by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle. Lighting Designed by Robert Wierzel. Projections by S. Katy Tucker. Choreography by Eric Sean Fogel. Fight and Intimacy Coach by Casey Kaleba. With Ryan McKinney, Vanessa Vasquez, Keri Alkema, Alek Shrader, Kyle Ketlesen, Vanessa Becerra, Norman Garrett, Peter Volpe, and Washington National Opera Orchestra and Chorus. Produced by Washington National Opera. Reviewed by Susan Galbraith.