Metropolitan Opera 2018-19 Season Review: Don Giovanni

Peter Mattei Leads A Cast That Pulls Out All The Comedic Stops

By Logan Martell

On April 12, 2019, the Metropolitan Opera resumed it season’s run of Mozart’s “Don Giovanni.” Occupying a rather unique space as a dramma giocoso, the work unfolds the allegorical message through often-comedic methods. The cast and crew of Friday’s performance strongly favored these comedic elements, much to the delight of the audience.

Michael Grandage’s production highlights the universal nature of the plot. Most effective in this regard is the set design, with the main, and almost only, feature being the shuttered jalousie windows of the city streets. These windows are used throughout the performance to hide, reveal, and frame crucial elements and events of the story. This was used most notably in Leporello’s catalog aria, as the windows open one by one with each revealing a woman who is presumably a former conquest of Don Giovanni. The set itself opened up to reveal an impressive array of women as a visual testament to the vastness of the Don’s depravity.

This sort of configuration returns with great meaning for the graveyard scene of Act two, as various statues loom downward upon the Don and Leporello and cast their silent judgment, and when the statues return for the final scene of Giovanni’s descent into hell. This cleanly drives home the allegorical message wherein the women of Don Giovanni’s escapades figuratively form the chain which ends up dragging him to hell.

Laughs Aplenty

In the role of Leporello, Adam Plachetka carried much of the performance’s humor, not losing his comedic punch despite the character’s extended presence on the stage. Cowardice sent him running as the Don and Commendatore exchanged blows, but fear dragged him back from the shadows of the set to add his horrified underscoring lines after the fatal blow was struck.

As the master and servant began to flee the scene, the Don’s sword was dropped, seemingly due to Leporello’s fearful bumbling. As Placetka had to take an extra couple of seconds to pick it up from the floor, his snappy, final line of the scene “Non vo’ nulla, Signor, non parlo piu,” was also dragged out, taking a little away from the quick, self-preservational cowardice that Leporello is known for.

His solid delivery of the aria “Madamina! Il catalogo e questo,” was bolstered by his dynamic gestures, making himself larger as he sang of larger women, shrinking himself down to sing of smaller women, and making his voice feeble to sing about older women. His suggestive melismas on the end of the phrase “voi sapete quell che fa,” were repeated with an unchanging emphasis on just what it is that the Don does with women, opting not to use the performance tradition of a lecherous humming for the third and last repetition.

Placetka drew great laughs in the opening scenes of the second act when he impersonated the Don in order to seduce Donna Elvira as per the Don’s plan; his slick gestures of supposed passion won over Elvira, and even Leporello himself.

Captivating Intensity

In the role of Donna Anna, Guanqun Yu maintained a captivating intensity throughout her appearances. Having performed earlier this season in the role of the pious Micaëla in Bizet’s “Carmen,” it was a stunning contrast to watch Yu relish in lines such as “I plead for vengeance and so must your heart!” and “Swear to avenge his blood!”

After recognizing Don Giovanni as her father’s killer, Yu’s frantic vibrato in the recitative accompagnato made for a powerful transition to the aria “Or sai, chi l’onore.” When this murderous passion became too much for Don Ottavio, Anna’s assurances of love gave Yu ample opportunity to display sufficiently loving tones, such as the gorgeous opening she gave to the line “abbastanza per te mi parla amore!” before a series of skillful vocal runs and colors.

Scoundrel & Seducer

In the title role, Peter Mattei struck a powerful balance between seducer and scoundrel, not neglecting one aspect for another. This was established early on as he explored every option to deal with Donna Anna to make his escape. When force could not repel her, Mattei resorted to flirtation, with the Commendatore’s challenge coming while the former tried to nuzzle his face into Donna Anna’s abdomen. The killing thrust of their deadly duel was enough that a handful of audience members could be heard sharply inhaling through their teeth as Mattei brought the sword down. After giving the slip to his pursuers and rejoining Leporello, Mattei takes his place among people casually drinking in the street as he correctly guesses what his servant encountered; the relaxed delivery showed a Don that, even while having his seductions foiled, manages to treat the whole experience like a game, this was reinforced as Mattei psyched himself up for the fun to be had at his upcoming party in the aria “Fin ch’han dal vino calda la testa.” This excitement also caused a number of buttons to fly off his jacket as he tugged it open, adding one last visual gag to the scene.

After a firm yet lovely rendition of the canzonetta “Deh vieni alla finestra,” full of affected, romantic tenderness, Mattei finagles a clean escape from the angry mob led by Masetto; not content with clean getaways, just as Mattei is a few steps from disappearing offstage he goes back to the distracted Masetto to disarm and beat him into submission.

The following graveyard scene finds Mattei’s Giovanni in a playful mood once more, employing a wailing falsetto to make Leporello believe he is a ghost before the Commendatore’s statue makes itself heard. Less playful, however, was his attempted rape of Elvira at the dinner party; he pulled at her dress and laid her on the table as if she were his next meal before she fled and encountered the statue.

Feuding Lovers

As Masetto, Kihwan Sim convincingly traced the character’s development from a simple villager to someone brave enough to try and hold a nobleman such as Don Giovanni accountable for his actions. His aria “Ho capito,” was fittingly capitulating when Sim addressed Don Giovanni, but when singing to Zerlina it seemed to lack the furious bite of a man having his bride temporarily stolen away by another; his phrase “Bricconaccia, malandrina, fostiognor la mia ruina” smoothed out the plosive and flipped “R” of the first syllable that really emphasizes the shift in his tone when he takes Zerlina aside. Their reconciliatory duets came as moments of sweetness which contrasted the otherwise rather bawdy humor of the performance.

As Zerlina, Serena Malfi’s bubbly exterior quickly revealed a surprising, mature sound for the duet “La ci darem la mano.” One could easily interpret a Zerlina that hides her desires behind the veil of a spritely country girl; this interpretation seemed to be reflected by Malfi and Mattei’s use of the bridal veil, a symbol of purity, to twist and pull one another as they flirted towards infidelity. Her aria, “Batti, batti, o bel Masetto” saw Malfi implore forgiveness with welcoming, outstretched arms. For the amount of distance the two characters maintained from one another, it was a pleasing change to see them interact with one another, bringing out an almost-giggling coloratura out of Malfi when Sim begins to kiss her from behind. This performance saw a number of successfully funny one-liners, one such being Malfi’s line “If I hide here, maybe he won’t see me,” as Mattei lecherously prowls his way towards her.

Unexpected Source

An unexpected source of laughter came from Susanna Phillips in the role of Donna Elvira. While Phillips displayed a scorned fire in her opening trio “Ah! Chi mi dice mai,” she immediately turned into a kitten as soon as she noticed Don Giovanni. This dynamic between her and Giovanni lasted through much of their interactions, with her retribution not extending much further than playful slaps as he placed his hands on as much of her body as he could.

Phillip’s interpretation was sufficiently blinded, being too in love with Giovanni to see his loathsomeness; her reactions to his escapades often tinged them with a more comedic impact. This was likely best exemplified by her flirtatious delivery of the usually outraged line “I know how you like to have fun,” which she punctuated by bumping her hip into him; drawing even larger laughs was the simple but exasperated way she threw her arms up in the air upon returning to see Giovanni seemingly flirting with Donna Anna.

Her dejected Act two aria “In quali eccessi, o Numi,” beautifully expressed Elvira’s inner ambivalences, though Phillip’s convincing dramatic portrayal had already made it clear just how strongly her character was pulled in both directions. For all the emotional abuse she suffers, her final line comes as something of a laugh at her expense as she wearily asserts that “I’ll end my days in a convent.” This was delivered with the subtext feeling more that she would swear off men forever rather than devote herself to God.

Surprise of the Night

Friday’s performance saw tenor Paul Appleby covering for Pavol Breslik in the role of Don Ottavio. While the character himself is often treated as a second thought, Appleby carried a vocal expressiveness that, even if the words were disregarded, did not fail to make itself felt. One example of this was his aria “Dall sua pace,” and his loving diminuendo to close the phrase “I have no joy if she has none.” In an often rowdy performance, Appleby established a more romantic atmosphere, allowing for an enjoyable reprieve from the comedy. His directions often placed a noticeable rift in space between himself and Donna Anna, highlighting the rift in their relationship that reaches an almost artistic level of unrequitedness for his act 2 aria “Il mio Tesoro intanto.” The jalousie which framed Donna Anna rather overtly cast her as the distant object of Ottavio’s affection.

Finally, Dmitry Belosselskiy established himself as a commendable Commendatore; his strong, clear bass made itself heard easily, lending a measure of vocal authority in his fatal attempt to preserve his daughter’s honor. This authoritative quality was further emphasized by the use of a microphone to boost his voice during the graveyard scene and found dramatic reflection in the later dinner scene; as the Commendatore’s Statue makes himself known in full, his lines seems to sap Don Giovanni’s strength, causing him to fall to his knees before the handshake which seals the latter’s fate.

Friday night’s performance had much to enjoy, thanks to a highly-dynamic cast of artists who fleshed out as much humor as could be drawn from Mozart and Da Ponte’s genre-blurring work. While the Metropolitan Opera’s season may be nearing to a close, performances such as this are a strong indicator that the company still has some surprises in stores for audiences.


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