Culture Magazine

Va Là, Che Sei Il Grand'uom: Don Giovanni

By Singingscholar @singingscholar
In the three times I've seen Michael Grandage's new Don Giovanni for the Met, I've progressed from disappointment, to frustration, to outright resentment of its lack of substance. (Is there a modified Kübler-Ross model for coping with bad opera productions?) Its visual clichés I find increasingly reminiscent of Phantom of the Opera: red velvet, ostentatious chandeliers, torch-bearing crowds with pitchforks, and, not least, theatrical blasts of flame. For the sake of Gerald Finley's Don, and Bryn Terfel's Leporello, however, I went. Both gave vivid vocal performances of great beauty... and both had, apparently, decided to fill the dramaturgical vacuum with bass-baritonal hijinks. They were supported by very fine singing from the rest of the cast. Andrew Davis' conducting was fleet and energized, but alert to the dark undercurrents in the music. The dramatic propulsion provided by the orchestra (which could also be slyly insinuating, when such was called for) was most welcome.
Bringing the count of on-stage Wotans to 2 (and Hans Sachses to 3, as Bryn Terfel pointed out,) James Morris sang the Commendatore. His sound is leaner than  customary for the part, but he had appropriate gravitas (and my sympathy. "How many times have you seen this opera?" asked my friend at the interval. "Stop acting surprised when he stabs the guy.") Shenyang and Isabel Leonard each sang well, and made a charming couple as Zerlina and Masetto. Shenyang made Masetto a goodnatured, shambling countryman, with dramatically attentive and nuanced singing. Having Leonard's sweet-toned mezzo and theatrical sensitivity made Zerlina both sensual and intelligent, and much more interesting than I usually find her.  She made the social and sexual tensions of her scenes with Don Giovanni and Donna Elvira vivid, and even "Batti, batti" was beautiful. Matthew Polenzani made a very earnest Don Ottavio, eager to comfort but slow to understand. He shaped "Dalla sua pace" elegantly, and brought a welcome urgency to "Il mio tesoro." Marina Rebeka brought unexpected and welcome fierceness to the role of Donna Anna. She seemed more secure in the role than in the autumn, and sang strongly throughout. As Donna Elvira, Ellie Dehn was, on the whole, vocally impressive. At the outset, she could turn shrill at the top of her range, but she sang with agility and intelligent attention to text. I would have liked a stronger sense of what she made of Elvira's past, and hopes for her future.
Bryn Terfel's Leporello was a near relation to Shakespeare's domestics and mechanicals, cheerfully lewd, and unselfconsciously rude (in the Elizabethan sense) of manner. This amiable manservant was capable of enjoying a joke at another's expense, but--unlike his master--fundamentally goodhearted. Details of gesture and inflection in his interactions with the Don were delightful, especially in his attempts to dissuade his master from flirting with Zerlina (and reluctance to be charged with intimidating the burly Masetto.) His treatment of Mozart's music and Da Ponte's text was masterful--and very funny--from his exasperated opening aria onwards. Gerald Finley made Don Giovanni an insatiable, unreflecting sensualist (and perhaps, also, something of a sadist.) In seeking to satisfy his barbarous appetites, he sang with vigor and unremitting beauty. His rich, dark baritone contrasted nicely with Terfel's, and he caressed text and music with great sensuality. As numerous critics have pointed out, Don Giovanni is--despite his record--not an successful seducer within the opera itself. Finley emphasized the Don's bafflement and persistence as being driven by a bewildered optimism. It made sense, then, that Leporello was the only one with a chance of breaking through his pathological self-centeredness. Not even Terfel's Leporello, though, could pull the Don back from his inevitable end.

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