Metropolitan Opera 2018-19 Review: Don Giovanni

Luca Pisaroni & Rachel Willis-Sørensen Dominate In Uneven Performance

By David Salazar

Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” returned to the Metropolitan Opera on Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2019 in Michael Grandage’s anonymous production. 

It’s a staging that unfortunately offers little to Mozart’s opera (unless you just want to see some fire at one point) and likely one that no one would miss if this opera were simply set on a black stage or given in concert version; perhaps the latter might even have more dynamism or aid in hiding the other big issue in this revival: there was no sense of direction or cohesion with any of the cast members. 

The entire night it felt as if all the participants were in different works, their acting styles all so radically different as to make one feel like they were just left to their own devices to do what they pleased. Yes, “Don Giovanni” is a dramma giocoso, which implies a melding of widely contrasting styles, but that doesn’t mean that some characters should look like they belong in a cartoonish farce while others look like they are in a greek tragedy. 

Mixed Debut

This was not aided by the man in the pit, maestro Cornelius Meister, in his Met debut. The conductor led a rather sedate and safe approach to the fame overture, though he had a habit of placing great emphasis on the timpani throughout, bringing special attention to that particular color throughout the piece. While it seemed like a novel idea in the famous opening chords with their darkness and tragic connotations, the continued preponderance of timpani hits throughout the Allegro section became predictable after awhile and lost any potential impact they might have had if emphasized more sparingly.

Things seemed like they might be headed for chaos in the opening trio between Donna Anna, Don Giovanni, and Leporello, with the singers and composer not together for quite a few moments. Fortunately, Meister managed to keep things steady for a time, though some rough patches would inevitably return as the maestro’s tempi shifted rather inconsistently. He rushed the end of “Fin ch’han dal vino,” resulting in bass-baritone Luca Pisaroni running out of breath for the final phrases of the aria. The transition to the trio between Donna Anna, Donna Elvira, and Don Ottavio in the Act one finale came rather suddenly, making the shift in character abrupt and awkward. 

The maestro seemed to prefer faster tempi throughout the night, so it was rather surprising that he took such a languid tempo for the final scene between Don. Giovanni and the Commendatore. The slow pace practically brought the drama to standstill, no tension emanating from the stage. 

But Meister’s greatest shortcoming was his inability to establish a consistent style with his artists. Much like the varied acting styles, there was a vast variety of approaches to the Mozartian vocal line, which added to the overall sense of disunity both musically and dramatically. Some singers brought excessive vibrato or accenting to the proceedings, others played things a bit more delicately, and one opted for ornamentation in the repetition of aria while the others never did. 

Two Basses

As Masetto, Brandon Cedel put on a solid performance. There was an overall earnestness to his approach, supported by a earthy vocal reading. His aria “Ho capito, signor, si” was marked by a roughness of tone that perfectly reflected his status as a peasant. He seemed to have menace, but it was always undercut by the other characters, allowing Masetto’s frustration to build over the course of the evening. 

As the Commendatore, Stefan Kocan exhibited a large and direct bass that made him a stabilizing presence in his scenes. 

Ildar Abdrazakov put on one of the finest performances of the evening, though his characterization differed radically from everyone else. Where many of the other actors seemed to invoke a more naturalistic movement style for their characters, the Russian bass played up the antics, coming off as cartoonish in some sections. However, it often worked tremendously well, especially in the Act two trio where he has to act as Don Giovanni. Putting on a truly gross imitation of his master, Abdrazakov’s work generated a sustained parade of laughter, especially when he jumped on top of a prone Elvira and started marveling at her body. 

In some ways, this approach also allowed for some strong dynamics with Luca Pisaroni’s Don Giovanni; the two simply couldn’t be more different. This was amplified in the final scene where Abdrazakov hid himself on the opposite side of the long table and starting eating away. The fact that he started singing along to “Non andrai” from “Le Nozze di Figaro,” added a potent comic element (he took on the title role in the first staging of the Met’s current Richard Eyre production of the Mozart-Da Ponte masterpiece). 

Vocally, he had a solid evening, his best work coming during the recitativo passages. Here he luxuriated in approaching the text with varied vocalism, ranging from hushed whispers at the beginning of the opera to a perfectly timed and potent shout as he finished reading the Commendatore’s tombstone. 

This was less present in his approach to formal vocal sections. The famed aria “Madamina, il catalogo è questo” was sung with the same ample sound and volume and there was minimal word coloring to differentiate “la piccina” from “la grande maestosa,” for example. Abdrazakov has a potent and elegant voice, but his singing often had a sameness throughout, no matter what he was singing.  

A Star Not Yet Born

One of the biggest stories going into this performance was the hotly anticipated debut of soprano Aida Garifullina, who is somewhat of an icon in the opera world. She boasts the biggest following on social media of any opera singer today; she headlined nearly as many appearances at the FIFA World Cup as Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo; and she was featured on American media (“Good Morning America” and People Magazine). To some extent, she’s transcended the opera world in a way few other artists have. 

However, Garifullina’s performance under the bright lights of the Met Opera’s stage was far from revelatory. 

The Russian diva has a solid instrument, especially in the middle range where there is a tonal consistency. This was most noticeable in the second aria “Vedrai, carino,” where the soprano managed a solid legato throughout, caressing the phrases and making us feel that she was doing the same for her beloved Masetto. She was also strong in most of the ensembles, meshing her voice well in the sextet and Act one finale’s coda with that of her colleagues.  

However, her ascents into the higher range can be unpredictable and her opening lines in the opera were best described as chirpy. Other moments in the higher range could betray an unevenness of vocal color, something that was present throughout “Bati, bati.” 

Most troubling was Garifullina’s overall inability to infuse Zerlina with little more than cuteness. The character developed little over the evening and her singing didn’t explore a wide palette of colors. 

Her acting attempted to compensate for this as the soprano was almost unsteady onstage, to a fault. It wasn’t enough that one gesture with her hands to Masetto expressed that he needed to leave; Garifullina started waving her arms around frantically to poor effect. Not only did it come off as comic (in the wrong way), but it also took all the attention off of the interaction between the characters and made it all about Zerlina’s arm waving. Furthermore, that she didn’t attempt to express the character in this moment through other means, emphasized not only the poor direction, but singing-actress’ inability to seize control of her own portrayal. This arm gesticulation became a constant throughout her performance, Garifullina unable to keep her arms steady or poised at any moment. That she often didn’t react to some of her stage partners (Pisaroni kissed her during “La ci darem la mano” and the Russian artist had no discernible reaction to it), only added to the sense that she wasn’t fully in the moment with them. 

Of course, this is a nerve-wracking debut. The soprano could yet settle into the role and the Met stage over the course of the run.                                 

Settling In

Speaking of settling it, it took soprano Federica Lombardi an entire act before she really started showing her quality in her Met Opera debut.

As Elvira she played the part of an angry woman well, but did little else throughout the first Act. The vulnerability was absent and this was also noticeable in her singing. Her voice had a grainy and jagged quality to it and the high notes sounded pushed and forced at times; she just seemed to struggle every time she ascended into the passaggio and beyond. She was barely audible for much of her opening aria, her middle range drowned out by the orchestra. “Ah, fuggi il traditor” was embodied by uneven coloratura and during the quartet, Lombardi misfired on the high runs and was forced to take a rather noticeable breath in the middle of the phrase; it created a dramatic emphasis that felt out of place with Mozart’s music. There was a considerably absence of dynamic shifts, the voice seemingly only projecting at one volume. Moreover, despite being an Italian native, it was surprising to hear mushy diction even in recitativo passages, the consonants practically blended with the vowels. 

Everything improved considerably in the second act, the soprano finding a way to showcase a wider breadth of timbral shifts. She floated some high notes in the third act’s opening trio, to mixed results, but it was refreshing to here her take on “Mi tradi” with greater delicacy, the voice softening over the course of the aria, emphasizing a growing sense of loss for the character.

There was a disconnect in how she interacted with lldar Abdrazakov’s Leporello during the second act, but as noted, the direction of the revival was consistently inconsistent. Fortunately, she found some much-needed chemistry with Pisaroni in the final scene, final looking like his victim as he prepared to abuse of her. 

After the first act, it seemed like the debutante might be poised for a disappointing evening. Fortunately, she turned things around quite significantly in the second half of the night. 

Misplaced Power In Mozart

Tenor Stanislas de Barbeyrac also made his debut at the Met on Wednesday night. He explored Ottavio as a heroic force, never backing away from a challenge. When Anna was looking for a champion to avenge her father, de Barbeyrac was the one to offer himself up for it. He had not trouble with getting in Don Giovanni’s face for the big showdown at the end of the first Act and when it was his moment to call Anna “crudele” for rejecting him, he walked right up to her and let his voice blast into the theater. 

What was interesting about the tenor’s portrayal was that this potency and aggressiveness was also explored in his vocal characterization. At times it seemed to work in his favor, particularly in recitativo passages or in the opening duet with Donna Anna, the two committing to seeking revenge. But in “Il mio tesoro,” it not only created an unevenness of style, but also shortchanged his overall execution. 

Throughout the treacherous aria, one felt that the tenor was pushing out the higher notes as best as he could and the result, while weightier and in line with the overall reading of the character, left him with minimal resources for the lengthy coloratura passages, which wound up sloppy in sections, due to limited breath. He managed a beautiful light crescendo on the “Cercate” F natural, but the “Ditele che i suoi torti” seemed strained on some notes and simply felt uneven in overall vocal color. It sounded at times as if he were singing a Verdi aria instead of something written by Mozart, such was the forcefulness in some of his phrasing, especially in the higher reaches.   

Much stronger was his approach to “Dalla sua pace.” He commenced the aria with full tone, but displayed enormous breath support throughout the lengthy phrases. De Barbeyrac’s vocal placement throughout clearly served his purpose and he wove a spell-binding aria from start to finish, punctuated by two brilliant crescendoes on “morte,” the latter one more aggressive and thus emphasizing Ottavio’s resiliency and strength. 

It was a strong debut overall for the tenor and he displayed incredible chemisry with his Donna Anna. 

Vocal Prowess

Speaking of Donna Anna, Rachel Willis-Sørensen essayed a truly powerful interpretation. From the opening notes to the very end of the opera, her performance was marked by tremendous vocal confidence with arguably the most challenging role in the opera. 

Hers was a fierce Donna Anna, challenging Ottavio when he called her “Crudele” with an even more violent outburst throughout the recitativo of her second aria. In this paricular section, she transitioned to a potent exploration of pain, with expansive legato. The second section of this aria was marked by pointed high notes that further emphasized the pain of the character.

Willis-Sørensen commanded the stage at every moment she was there. She didn’t need to make big gestures to prove her point, but when she did, the moments were effective and undoubtedly immersive. One of the touchstone moments of her performance came right after the quartet. Don Giovanni has just kissed her hand and walked away. Donna Anna recognizes that this is the man that killed her father and she suddenly starts to wipe her hand with everything she can possibly find. It was violent and visceral and really spoke to the disgust of the character in that moment. It is hard to wipe that image away. 

It was a nearly flawless performance from the soprano though her “Or sai chi l’onore” was yet another example of stylistic disparity. She opened the aria softly, even timidly, and when it came time to take on the recapitulation, she approached it in the same manner. However, she did make one change – she added coloratura ornaments, one of them reaching very high into her vocal stratosphere. While virtuosic, it was a jarring moment as she was only one to make that choice of adding ornamentatin to a repetition in an aria  throughout the entire evening.. 

The aria itself felt rather static since it didn’t feature much progression in her approach across the two sections; it would have been interesting to see Willis-Sørensen approach that recapitulation with a noticeably different approach that would have revealed more about Anna’s character in this moment.

One final note worth mentioning is that for large portions of the night, Willis-Sørensen had the tendency to float nearly every high note past the passaggio; this technique was used throughout “Or sai.” At times there were crescendoes to great effect, but after a while, the continued use of piannissimo high notes made them ultimately less musically and dramatically potent. That isn’t to say that the notes didn’t sound beautiful, but more sparing use would have resulted in greater impact. 

On the whole, it was impossible to take your eyes off of Willis-Sørensen when she was onstage and she will likely remain one of the highlights over the course of the run. 

The Snake

In the title role was Italian bass-baritone Luca Pisaroni, who has authored the role of Leporello a number of times with the company. In addition to Willis-Sørensen and Abdrazakov, Pisaroni gave the most complete performance of the night.

His Don Giovanni is a regal, potent man who is truly evil; all you had to do was watch the way he walked to see that this guy had a tremendous sense of confidence. Pisaroni never played the character for laughs, even if he did cackle quite a few times over the course of the evening.  Instead, Pisaroni’s Giovanni was a snake, shifting from the kind and elegant nobleman to a brutal jerk. He was a master manipulator in his way with the ladies, seducing them in a slow and gentle manner before going in for the kill, usually with a kiss. This was evidenced in “La ci darem la mano” and during the ensuing Quartet, where he waited to have Elvira in his grasp to kiss her. As the opera developed, we saw increased aggression and violence from his Giovanni, climaxing in his attempted rape of Elvira in the final Act. He was brutal with Leporello, throwing him around and beating him to a pulp on a few occasions.

Pisaroni matched his fine physical portrayal with an equally potent vocal one. Recitative passages were filled with a play on words and colors. His first encounter with Elvira was played off with a cool demeanor, his recitativo singing relaxed. Contrast that with his approach in the graveyard scene, where he was far more direct and aggressive in his delivery. 

In the quartet, his vocal shifts emphasized his interactions. He was smooth and delicate with Ottavio and Anna before shifting into a faux-tenderness with Elvira that slowly built into something cruder.

His “Fin ch’han dal vino” was pure muscularity, the bass-baritone aggressively approaching the phrases and words with snarl and seeming contempt. The Act two trio was characterized by a fluid legato line and the aria “Meta di voi qua vadano” was a coup for Pisaroni as he shifted his vocal color to something grainier and rustic that would perfectly imitate Leporello.

He had a fullness of sound during the confrontation with the Commendatore that gave the confrontation a semblance of tension, even if the whole ensemble didn’t quite work. Perhaps the only section where Pisaroni’s considerable talents left something to be desired was during “Deh, vieni alla finestra” where some of the higher notes had a pushed quality and the overall color of the line was unevenness in the second verse of the aria.

Ultimately this was a major success for the Italian bass-baritone and he will undoubtedly find ways to dig deeper into his characterization as the run progresses. 

“Don Giovanni” is one of the most popular operas in the repertory, but it is also one of the most challenging to produce and perform effectively. The Grandage production already puts the cast at a disadvantage, and matters are not helped when there seems to be an uneven musical vision to complement it.

Hopefully as the run progresses, greater unity is accomplished. 


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