San Francisco Opera’s “Don Giovanni” brings us bass-baritones with gusto, sopranos with flair, a tenor who pleads his case with feeling, and an opera that never ceases to amaze. Opening SFO’s 2017 summer season, Jacopo Spirei, in his SFO debut, offers us the ever satisfying chestnut in as provocative and seductive a production as the Don himself. Who can resist?
Ildebrando D’Arcangelo, also making his SFO debut, sings the title role with suavity. His beckoning and full-throated bass-baritone luxuriates in the panoply of moods and emotions that such a confident cad requires – petulance, desire, boldness, sweetness, and charm. A vital rebel against society’s norms, Don Giovanni, the same Don Juan we have in Lord Byron’s comic masterpiece only thirty-plus years after Mozart, is a man who gets what he wants then feels it is never enough – 1003 women in Spain alone. D’Arcangelo, a handsome Italian, popular in the role abroad, is at home on the stage and plays the part with ease. His voice sometimes gets submerged in bursts of orchestral sound, and some of his molto rapido (rapid-fire) phrases, quick as a hummingbird, are under-appreciated because of it. His lively smiles and frowns complement the patter, however, and the spill of words; no wonder he’s such a charmer, even with the feisty Zerlina, who needs the bulk and anger of her Masetto and Co. to fend him off. The famous duet “La ci darem la mano” rises out of his bag of tricks without warning – and, although well articulated in its cunning and beauty, did not bring as much ardor as it might. “Finch’ han dal vino” lands on us, however, with lustiness and energy.
His Leporello, Erwin Schott, also making his SFO debut, and himself a world-renowned Don Giovanni and Leporello, is more than a foil. Waking from a stage nap at the curtain, his first appearance lacked some verve, and even the famous catalogue aria, “Madamina,” seemed “recollected in tranquility” more than persuasive cockiness. He built his partnership in crime with his master to far finer high points thereafter, so that at times, especially the finale, he, for notes and phrases, almost outshone him. His voice, rich in his forte, and growing in strength and color – bronzing upper notes, so loud, clear and forceful, it was hard to wait for all the innuendo to clear so we could bask in its beauty. The plasticity of his facial expression also matched the characterization, even when miming his plea to Donna Elvira in the second act – when he’s to out-Giovanni Giovanni – perhaps he could have maintained ‘his place’ as ‘second’ a bit more. Station is station in 17th century Spain, after all, even though his part requires presence and persuasiveness as well. He is not the gifted Lothario Don G is, but he does have more than his share of skills to enable the Don to have his way: indeed, Don G’s list couldn’t have grown as voluminous without them. His lamentations about his job with the Don do not move us much. Laughing at him, that is different. About his woes, do we care? “Nah. It’s a job. Be glad you’ve got it. You may be smarter than what the Don gives you credit for, but as a would-be lover? He’s a cut above you, scalliwag, in the way of conquest.” By the cemetery scene in Act II, however, and then the banquet, Erwin Schott’s Leporello was more than reliable. Shoulder to shoulder he stood with D’Archangelo’s Don, his sound like a claret when he sang out, and his detailed gestures – hands, feet, head, and his twinkling eyes to the audience as well – reinforced its richness.
Femmes Fatales & Their Men
As for our femmes fatales, two, nearly three, of the “mille-tre” in the Don’s list, offer more than lamentation, although from Donna Anna, played by Erin Wall, in her SFO debut, grief convinced us when she found her father dead. In fact, in the opening scenes, she was the main source of the energy, the conviction of loss, shock, and bewilderment, persuading us that this was real death. By contrast, her ardent and poised posture throughout the performance – like ivory she is – smooth and unbreakable, was like a beautiful canary rarely leaving her perch.
Don Ottavio, her young and tepid fiancé, played by Stanislas de Barbeyra, making his SFO debut, didn’t do more than mop up her tears; that is, until his arias, “Dalla sua pace” and “Il mio tesoro,” where the upper registers of his tenor shone with fine breath-control and plaintive longing, despite some unevenness in the low register.
Donna Elvira, dynamically played by Ana María Martinez, offered good contrast to Donna Anna. She brought fire and brimstone to her anger, unlike her cooler compatriot. “Al fuggi il traditor” expressed contempt that rose and fell along with her heart. How could anyone, least of all this Casanova, not only take advantage of her, but leave her helpless with love besides? Hence, she was blind when Leporello, disguised as the Don, managed to ingratiate her so she opened her heart to the ‘Don’ again: ‘Promise, promise,’ her voice pleaded, after its fiery battering seconds before. Flexibility and vitality in her range and power, along with Anna’s, illustrated musically what Mozart and DaPonte aimed for when accounting the Don’s conquests: short, tall, young, old, fat, thin, countesses and chambermaids, cool, fiery. At times, her voice almost shrieked like her ‘cousin’ the Queen of the Night, definitely predictable and provoking, and aptly doing the job.
Zerlina, girlish, giggling, and flirting, also provided an apt contrast to the two noblewomen. Sarah Shafer, whose voice cajoled and pouted, rose and coquettishly fell, also looked the part with ribbons and apron, bright blue eyes and curls, particularly as she battered her smitten bridegroom with more. In her famous “Batti, batti,” she showed that she’s skilled in the art of feminine wiles, and unlike her female counterparts, when she thinks she will submit to the Don’s advances, she seems to know what she’s about. Hence, she sang away with pluck and winsomeness and got away with it.
Her Masetto, Michael Sumuel, amply played a commendable partner who, although trying to free himself from her grasp, did not truly want to succeed. The Commendatore, Andrea Silverstrelli, did his job too, performing with apt gravity. However, in the finale, we look for more: where is the pitch-dark ominousness? Where is the pit of hell? The handshake between him and the Don right before the end was not sufficiently electric despite the pyrotechnics around. The Don’s tornado of realization seemed apparent only when he realized his fate. A bit predictable, the sweeping of dishes from the table; no rattle of hell; practiced, but no actual fear. But then, of course, Don Giovanni isn’t afraid, not really. He doesn’t believe in all that heaven/hell stuff, although he goes through his paces. And despite the mirrored duplication of him in the hell of punishment, we never have the feeling he suffers more than when he can’t get the girl he wants. For him, it’s all a game, this cool, detached man on the edge of the age of reason; so too, the master clockmaker far enough above the world to wage no effect on it here and now. Besides, all that supposed punishment can’t hold a candle to the fun they’ve had.
But then there are the mirrors: Tommi Brem’s projections and scenic adaptations, however clever and intricate, barely affect these thoughts, let alone anything else. Keep it all minimalist, we say, and functional. The idea may have been a good one, but too often their rise and fall missed the mark (not literally, of course). Core issues call us here, man vs. man, and it’s enough for us to leave the theater contemplating that more than duplicating the infinity of it all.
The orchestra, led by Marc Minkowski, also a SFO debut, did good job, playing the textured score to expand the sound throughout the hall but not beyond. No need for transcendence here, of course. Strong solo singing and interpretation is more than enough, along with the well-coordinated ensembles. Does Mozart ever miss a beat? Duets, trios in variety, quartets, quintet, sestet and sextet – a cornucopia of riches. We even get two bouts of musicians on stage to further fill us.
Mozart the marvelous, Mozart the magician. Who can complain about anything when we get a good performance like this from the master of music who tosses off beauty like Cleopatra her charms? Leaving the War Memorial Opera House, we are well fed on what some have called the greatest opera of all. Whether or not we think it is, we are filled with sound that thrills us, content that Don Giovanni walked the world in his giant boots so we can reap this reward.