I am going to be rather forward with you. This analysis of Wednesday’s “Don Giovanni” at the Metropolitan Opera will kick off on a positive note before turning a bit sour in tone. But lo and behold, after that, I am going to return to my boyish enthusiasm for what I experienced at the opening of this revival run.
The Major Pro & Its Con
So here goes the positive – From top to bottom, this is probably the best “Don Giovanni” cast the Met has assembled in the 21st century. From the singing to the observation of tiny details that created full-blooded characters, there was simply no flaw in this entire cast. The cast was so good that I completely forgot about that, quite frankly, massive piece of rotating window dressing that is Michael Grandage’s production (more on that later). The singers could have performed the drama on a black stage and I would have been just as engrossed and mesmerized by their performance. And since this was the second cast of the run, they pulled off the feat without a true dress rehearsal, Wednesday’s performance their very first with the orchestra.
So now to the negative, some of which you can probably guess. With absolutely no disrespect intended on the great singers assembled for the fall performances of the opera, this cast, starring Mariusz Kwiecien, Angela Meade, Matthew Polenzani, Marina Rebeka, Isabel Leonard, Erwin Schrott, Stefan Kocan and Jeongcheol Cha should have been the one showcased around the world as part of the Live in HD programs. This is the kind of cast that people marvel about when they talk about the Met’s unrivaled star quality. But alas, that was not meant to be.
The Other Con
Also not meant to be is this production. I promise to keep the backlash to a minimum. While the period costumes work beautifully throughout the production (the upper class wears heels while the lower class folk don’t), the set itself is a behemoth that looms large over the cast with a bunch of doors braced across it. It hints at the labyrinthine plot and character complexity embedded throughout the opera, but it also loses itself in its own design. When you put a door on a stage, the expectation is that it will open at some point. Psychologically, this creates a tremendous amount of mystery and anticipation for the viewer, who expects some strong revelation when the door finally opens. And at the start of the opera, Don Giovanni and Donna Anna exit through one of those numerous doors and struggle, hinting at more to come. But it never does. The catalog aria has women come out on the balconies, but they all look the same and quite frankly don’t add much to the descriptive commentary of Leporello’s famous musical passage.
Many will defend the production by showing the cool fire effect at the end as the titular antagonist literally descends into hell. And while it’s certainly eye candy, you wouldn’t defend a Hollywood blockbuster on the grounds that the special effects are cool, right? Story and its ability to illuminate us must and will always come first. Simply put, this production brings nothing new to the drama itself. New is the key because when it does open up to reveal more doors, its vast space feels quite similar to the Marthe Keller production that preceded it. And while the costumes work well in this production, there is no denying that they rehash the style of their predecessor as well. This lack of vision is quite possibly best exemplified in the opening moments after the first few notes of Mozart’s revolutionary overture. The curtain rises on the big scene and for four or so minutes we watch Leporello sleep. That’s it.
But on a more positive note, if Grandage had a more clear-cut or radical vision of the story, then the performers on Wednesday probably don’t have the freedom to craft the dramatic nuance we wound up with.
A Violent Musical Feast
Everywhere you looked you could see violence oozing out from every performer. It all started with maestro Plácido Domingo whose handling of the overture was rather brusque, the brass sound extended and emphasized during the overture’s abrupt punctuations throughout. Even in passages with descending violin runs, the accents at the top of those phrases were marked by harsher orchestra chords. This style would permeate the entire work and while it is not necessarily what many would expect in a more traditional Mozartean approach, it set the tone for a more hostile look on the famous work. Domingo emphasized quicker tempi throughout as well. At times, he pushed his singers so fast that he lost connection with them. This was most noticeable in the trio of Anna, Ottavio, and Elvira at the close of the first act and the famous climax of the opera, Stefan Kocan falling behind on his phrases. Of course, those hiccups were quickly averted and the performance continued its torrential direction.
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
Mariusz Kwiecien is a veteran to this work and one of the foremost interpreters right now and his Don Giovanni is a consummate case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, morphing beautifully from the gallant gentleman to baser animalistic impulse on queue. His goal? Always to sustain power and influence over everyone. His initial struggle with Anna was rude and forceful, his tone granular and accented in its phrasing. But then his fight with the Commendatore saw him move about with ballet-like precision. Kwiecien was a master of expression during the recitatives, every single word given powerful meaning. After murdering the Commendatore, he spoke in hushed tones but they seemed to grow in agitation, hinting at impatience with his valet’s line of questioning. A scene later, his frustration with Leporello lead to him literally grabbing him by the jugular to assert his power. At this moment, his timbre growled with fury but it quickly morphed into a luxurious line as he intuited the approach of a woman.
His seduction of Zerlina was also quite nuanced in his characterization. Faced with ridding himself of Masetto, he gently shoved the bumpkin aside with vocal and physical politesse. But when he found his adversary a bit rebellious, he asserted himself in every respect. “Là ci darem la mano” saw Kwiecien showcase his most tender singing of the night, his baritone caressing each phrase, his hands gliding over Isabel Leonard’s body as he inched ever close to her most sensitive parts. As victory came ever nearer, his timbre amped up its excitement, his power too mighty for her to resist.
In the quartet, he sang with a polished tone in the initial “La povera ragazza” but then built up a coarser texture as if trying to force others into taking his side. When all seemed lost, he grabbed hold of Marina Rebeka’s Donna Elvira, but then slowly moved to seduce her. She melted into his arms, embracing him in a climactic kiss before realizing her grave mistake, slapping him and running off.
We saw more shades of the animal in the Don during the major party, his aria “Fin ch’han dal vino,” a nihilistic anthem. The baritone perfectly mastering every phrase and syllable but did so with a bite on every single word. Refinement was not necessarily on his mind as he interpolated a coloratura run before the final section of the aria, but it mattered little; this was Don Giovanni at his basest. By the end of the scene, he was attacking everyone in sight, threatening Leporello with a knife and then doing the same with Donna Anna to clinch his big escape.
The second act saw more Hyde than Jekyll. While he tried to teach Leporello the mannerisms of a gentleman, his smile and overemphatic phrasing during the trio expressed disdain for the poor woman he was tricking. We saw one last flash of the upper-class hero in the famous “Deh vieni a la finestra” as Kwiecien used the two repeated sections of the aria as a vehicle for his glorious legato singing. The first section was interpreted with ardent passion and vigor as if Don Giovanni thought the maid would fall for this approach. Seeing that plan fail, Kwiecien sang mezzo voce, every phrase sun like the tiniest of threads, the sound so delicate that it was almost disembodied. It also signaled the final time we actually hear the elegant gentleman.
From that moment on, Don Giovanni’s reckless nature takes over. Mozart writes his ensuing aria “Metà di voi quà vadano” in the vocal style of Leporello, the fine connected musical lines non-existent. Kwiecien even tried to imitate Erwin Schrott’s more open timbre and vibrato in this passage. His violence on Masetto moments later was visceral and gripping, each blow delivered with greater aggression. His behavior in the graveyard scene was menacing, Kwiecien howling and shouting when he didn’t get what he wanted. At the start of the scene, he employed a vocal tremor to scare Leporello, the quality uncomfortable and eerie.
The final scene saw him ravaging women left and right, then throwing Elvira on his table while always seeking to tonally one-up her at every turn. His confrontation with the Commendatore was a vocal sparring match, Stefan Kocan’s rigid and firm tone contrasted by Kwiecien’s unwieldy approach. As he descended into hell, Kwiecien threw caution to the wind, his sound turning into an animalist howl.
While Erwin Schrott was a great Don Giovanni in his own right, his Leporello might just be the finest there is. Playing him as a straight-up brute with a confused moral compass, Schrott provided one incredible laugh after another throughout the night and the comedic center of the entire night. The apotheosis of his comic timing came right at the start of Act 2 as he did his best to imitate the moves of the gentlemanly Don Giovanni. His movements always came late and completely off the target, making a mockery of the entire seduction and further reducing the dignity of poor Donna Elvira.
His repeated gestures toward the little catalog book, when faced with an increasingly angered Donna Elvira, exposed his weaker side as he sought some defense. It was a pathetic and yet endearing little action encapsulated how defenseless this character felt.
Everything he tried seemed to end in desperate disaster, from his overwrought frustrations with a village girl at Zerlina’s wedding party to his failed escape during the sextet, only heightening the sense of black comedy in the show.
Schrott possesses a massive instrument that has allowed him to dominate the role of Procida in “I Vespri Siciliani” and here we saw him put it to versatile use. He never raised his voice in front of his master and when he was overpowered, he immediately hushed up and backed away. His singing had a jagged nature to it, keeping with Mozart’s own highly rhythmic writing for the servant. Even his legato lines had some interpolated coloring that placed greater emphasis on the text and less on the beauty of the voice. His catalog aria is a perfect example. The opening stanzas, which cite the numerical breakdown of the Don’s conquests were exacting and precise, almost like machine guns rattling off. Meanwhile, he relished the taste of every single word throughout that second section, his bass jumping about from one texture to the next as he described each different kind of woman. He was booming as he talked of “la maestoso” or shrinking his sound to a nasal quality as he mentioned “la piccina.” By the end, every word was a jab at Elvira, Marina Rebeka shrinking into the ground as if wounded and imploding before our eyes. By the end, his guttural humming. compounded by thrusting movements, hit home the raunchiness of the situation.
The other major highlight for the bass was the scenes in the graveyard and final climax. His voice moved from a full tone as he questioned the statue before being interrupted by a whinier sound as he begged his master for relief. In the final scene, he shrunk under the table, wailing about in fear.
A Vibrant Debutante
This cast featured veterans in their respective roles with one exception – Marina Rebeka as Donna Elvira. The Latvian soprano, who delivered one of the finest “Traviata’s” at the Met in recent history and was also a tragic and mortified Donna Anna when this production first opened, made her role debut as the other Giovanni lover in the opera on Wednesday. And as seems to be the case with anything Rebeka touches, it was pure gold.
The character of Elvira is often mocked for being obsessive and a bit crazy. One conductor, I spoke with about the opera noted that Mozart himself writes in hints of her unhinged mind with small violin cues in her first aria “Ah chi mi dice mai” and also explained that her second aria “Ah fuggi traditor” is in baroque style and expresses her outdated thinking. And a rather passive approach to the character certainly bears out the idea that she is nothing more than a puppet.
But Rebeka, who told OperaWire that she preferred this character far more than Donna Anna, latched on to the very first action we get from Elvira as the basis for the entire interpretation – she is actively searching for Don Giovanni to either win him back or get revenge. And so it is that her interpretation of “Ah chi mi dice mai” was filled with pointed phrasing that hinted at frustration pouring out of her soul. One immediately felt, with her accented phrasing and stoic gait, that this was an imposing figure ready to upend the entire street if necessary to unearth this traitorous man. And when she did find him, she lunged at him immediately, giving him almost no time to deflect her blow.
The relationship between Don Giovanni and Donna Elvira in the hands of Rebeka and Kwiecien would be marked by an eternal struggle, the two coming to blows at times, their voices shouting at each other in other moments. Far from his puppet, she seemed to be fighting as his equal trying to win him by some emotional force. Every time she came to confront him, she threw something aside, whether it be her bag or some other prop, emphasizing her presence and determination to dominate him. Their prolonged war was gripping and chilling to watch all the same, especially when, in the opera’s climax, Giovanni grabbed her and forced her onto the table as if to end the battle in the most horrific of ways.
Her interpretation of the famous “Mi tradi” was also quite aggressive in her approach. Instead of mourning, Rebeka was vicious in her attacks on notes. Instead of tending to the wound with tears as other interpreters do in this aria, she was metaphorically ripping off the bandage and forcing out the venom inside. In this approach, Rebeka exposed the inner struggle that this aria expresses, as Rebeka also aptly portrayed the trepidation that Elvira feels with a darker hue and softer dynamics.
We also warmed up to her gentle nature during the quartet, the opening phrases sung with a disembodied sound that expressed the longing of a gentle and loving heart. And of course, Rebeka’s refined and polished legato line was on full display throughout the sextet, her soprano growing in agitation at every blow directed at her Don Giovanni. She shielded him with her body at moments, portraying Elvira’s fearlessness in the face of danger.
It was a successful debut for Rebeka and a firm and clear depiction of a character far more fascinating and nuanced than she is often given credit for.
The Feisty Villager
In the other revelatory performance of the evening was Isabel Leonard as Zerlina. Most Zerlina’s are quaint, innocent peasants who just happen to be victims of the men dominating her life.
But Leonard, who sang this role in 2008 and again in 2012, has developed her Zerlina into a feisty coquette who will not let anyone control her destiny. From the get-go, we get a sense of her independence as she bullies Masetto around every time he was overbearing. Leonard had no qualms about beating him up (playfully of course) to shut down his unsubstantial rebukes or raising her voice to quiet him. She knew exactly how to control him, seducing him in both of her arias in completely different ways. In “Batti, batti,” she fell to the ground, her stomach on the ground and just stared him down with a look of innocence while her feet swayed up behind her. Then she got up on her knees and crawled up to him in a playful manner, her singing bright and playful with its light timbre. This scene showcased two children making up after a fight.
But her seduction during “Vedrai, carino” was of two adults ready to take things to the next level. Singing with utmost sensuality in a smooth and silky sound, Leonard propped herself up against Jeongcheol Cha’s Masetto, took her hands and grazed them across her body, each movement with great sexual drive. The tension built throughout the aria as she grew more and more suggestive throughout the aria, her timbre subtly growing in strength throughout.
During the sextet, she had no problems with rushing at Leporello to knock him over upon seeing his traitorous behavior.
Her behavior with Don Giovanni contrasted this greatly. Here we saw a Zerlina that was not completely at home or secure. She moved away from him, but without the conviction that accompanied her behavior with Masetto. Even when she looked away during “Là ci darem la mano,” one could sense that she wanted to turn and look at Kwiecien’s Don Giovanni. Her singing was far more gentle, the phrasing muted to highlight her character’s submissiveness. During the party scene, she tried to wrestle away from his advances but also capitulated quite easily.
Two Suffering Souls
Angela Meade and Matthew Polenzani were a perfect pair as the “lovers” Donna Anna and Don Ottavio though it was clear in this interpretation that Meade’s Donna Anna had no time to think about anyone but herself.
At one point I followed how often she acknowledged him with her look and during the course of her “Orsai,” she looked at him only three or four times. This was a consistent dramatic beat throughout with Polenzani’s Don Ottavio constantly seeking her gaze but often failing to do so.
Meade’s massive instrument imbued this character with penetrative suffering, her wide vibrato used to its full effect. The aforementioned “Orsai” was volcanic in how Meade let her sound roar through the theater with abandon. Her more delicate “Crudele! Ah no mio bene” saw her sing with more gentle and tender hues but the second section was expressed with the same ferociousness, the coloratura aggressively articulated and the high notes showcasing Meade’s vocal resources at their dramatic limits. Meade on her best night just leaves the listener in awe with the punch her expressive soprano can pack. And she was on her best night Wednesday.
As was Polenzani, portraying desperation in Ottavio. From his opening recitative lines, there was inherent agitation in his characterization. His Don Ottavio looked like he wanted to help, but had no idea how to. His repetitions of “Lo guiro” in the ensuing duet with Anna alternated between an assertive declamation and a timid one, suggesting his own insecurity in this situation. It added tension to the scene, expressing the idea that these two “lovers” were not necessarily in sync about their desires. By the end, Ottavio gave in more than simply desiring vengeance.
I have to talk about “Dalla sua pace” and truly ask if there is currently any tenor that sings this with more nuance and feeling than Polenzani? His opening phrases were sung full-voiced and with tender passion, but it was the repetition that really broke my heart. His voice but a gentle mezza voce breeze, Polenzani made love to every single line, interpolating his own ornaments with utmost care. It was as if these phrases were porcelain that needed to be sung this way, as any more force would shatter them. As the aria moved toward its climax, his voice grew in power until it burst out with glorious passion on “Morte mi da.”
As the night progressed, Polenzani’s Ottavio seemed to grow into the role of hero, taking on a greater assertion in the Act 1 climax as he held a gun to the rogues. But even here, he put his arm down when his Donna Anna was put into grave danger. His entrance in the Act 2 sextet saw the tenor in top form, his rich and polished line adding a heroic dimension to one of the most sublime phrases in the entire opera.
“Il mio tesoro” clinched his status as a true hero, his timbre more potent and forceful, as if his resolution to help her had reached its apex. On the repetitions of “Cercate,” he held the final note with an exciting crescendo that erupted into vicious coloratura. The lengthy coloratura passage in the center of the piece was sung with precision and directness and the final notes of the aria saw Polenzani’s voice blossom into its full potential.
A Loving Bumpkin
Last but certainly not least was Jeongcheol Cha as Masetto. His interpretation saw Zerlina’s fiancé appear out of his depth the entire night, his awkward pose and movement suggesting a man who could not even dominate himself. During his famous aria “Ho capito” he started off singing with controlled line and polished vocal color. But he could not contain the poise for long, lashing out vocally and physically at Zerlina. When Don Giovanni moved near, he shut down of fear, exposing his cowardice and insecurity.
As the Commendatore, Kocan’s voice boomed with delicious clarity, every phrase concise and never fraying from his rigid style.
As I stated above, this evening was masterful from every artist onstage. The specificity of every interpretation brought searing insight to this ever-fascinating masterpiece and I implore anyone and everyone to see this cast.
Our attendance at this performance was made possible by the Metropolitan Opera’s press department.