Metropolitan Opera 2022-23 Review: Don Giovanni

Peter Mattei, Federica Lombardi, Adam Plachetka Lead Stellar Cast in Fantastic Production

By David Salazar
(Credit: Karen Almond / Met Opera)

On May 5, 2023, the Metropolitan Opera finally put on its new production of “Don Giovanni” for a packed house.

For those who don’t remember, this production was set to premiere during the previously announced 2020-21 season, but of course, we all know what happened. Fortunately, Ivo Van Hove’s production is finally here and the company will be much better for it in the long run.

A Massive Step Up

I previously saw this production in Paris back in 2018-19 and really laid out several of my sentiments on Van Hove’s take (across over 1,600 words), so I won’t reiterate all of those points here. Since many of those ideas and impressions remain, and strengthened by my experience of the production at the Met, I will invite you to check them out in full here.

Nonetheless, it goes without saying that this production is a massive improvement from what the Met was using to stage one of the greater operas in the repertory. Michael Grandage’s production was sufficient, presenting the opera in period clothing with a minimalist set to add some flair here and there to the proceedings. But inventive, immersive, or thrilling in any dramatic matter it was not.

Van Hove’s is the complete opposite. Bringing Mozart and Da Ponte’s classic into modern times with a minimalist aesthetic that both allows flexibility for the actors, but always has something to say, is no easy feat for any director in any medium. But what is accomplished here, especially in the context of having seen it in a different theater years ago, is nothing short of extraordinary. As I note in my Paris review, this “Don Giovanni” speaks directly to us. Clothed in a suit, a shirt, and a tie, this Don could literally be any number of strong man archetypes we know so well – to quote that review, “a mobster, politician, Wall Street business executive, or even one of those Hollywood moguls.” He’s never hiding. His face is there for all to see (Donna Anna stares him right in the face at the start of the opera when he assaults her and the only thing that Leporello and Don Giovanni change with regards to their disguises in Act two is the tie and a coat) and we all know he exists, but we have been powerless to do something about it. Ironically, like in 2019, with hardline conservatives and fascists seemingly still gaining popularity and control around the world, the opera’s conclusion that only divine intervention could rid us of social parasites like Don Giovanni feels more and more real (and upsetting).

Undeniably, there are some subtle changes to this staging from what I witnessed in Paris. Most prominent for me would be the Donna Anna – Don Ottavio interaction during her “Non mi dir.” Whereas the Paris version seemed to suggest a rupture in the relationship between the two lovers when Don Ottavio plants himself between Donna Anna and the flower at the front of the stage, almost as if asking her to choose between him and her father, this version never uses that blocking, instead having Don Ottavio shift away from her momentarily before they back in each others’ arms and building sexual tension once again.

Otherwise, the opera’s major staging choices from that earlier iteration were maintained while allowing the performers ample liberty to explore and develop the story on their own terms. And this is perhaps where the greatest shift in the experience came – tone.

Whereas the Paris version of this production came off a bit colder and harsher, more violent in its execution with the comic moments more subdued (one could say that one leaned into darker humor), this New York version of the production definitely toyed with the fine line between humor and violence. Here, Peter Mattei was allowed to imbue his version of the villain with more charm, while also retaining his violent nature, adding complexity to the portrayal. This opened up venues for Leporello, very much a doppelgänger to Don Giovanni in this production, to also play with similar colors, both in displaying aggressive potential, while also being a bit of a goof at certain moments. But ultimately, what was most impressive was that Van Hove’s play with tone here, which was likely adapted to suit a more American aesthetic, never felt like it was “playing to crowd.” The violence that was so striking in Paris wasn’t sanitized here to suit the Met’s more conservative audience members. It felt true to the original concept that had been crafted for a different audience with different sensibilities, but flexible. There’s also something excitingly dissonant about presenting such laugh-out-loud moments amidst such arid scenography. And those qualities alone should allow for it to have a long life on the Met stage.

And that tonal play allows for another major crowning achievement of this “Don Giovanni” – its pacing.

Mozart was a genius and his operas are touchstones of the repertory. But with the exception of “Le Nozze di Figaro,” pacing in his works could be rather inconsistent and nowhere is this plainer to see than in Act two of “Don Giovanni.” Whereas the first act is relentless and propulsive with how it introduces characters and conflicts and builds them, the start of Act two indicates that the drama has lost its way with no discernible plot development and a litany of arias from characters who very much are stuck in the same gear. Elvira still wants Don Giovanni even though he’s repeatedly betrayed her before and during the opera. Don Ottavio is still begging Donna Anna to marry him even though she’s repeatedly told him to give her some space because all she wants right now is revenge. Zerlina and Masetto… at least they’re not fighting anymore. Leporello still wants to leave Don Giovanni but doesn’t. And Don Giovanni… he’s still actively pursuing another woman because that his nature. But the stakes couldn’t be lower for much of this opening 60 minutes or so and most productions (the Grandage one included) seemingly have no idea what to do with any of this and just try to overdo the comedy to keep the audience invested (yes, the music is glorious).

It isn’t until Don Giovanni and Leporello stumble across the graveyard that things pump into gear again and the story moves towards its epic climax. Van Hove doesn’t necessarily innovate here so much as to lean into the confusing nature of the plot to create tension. The fact that Don Giovanni and Leporello’s “disguise” comes down to a tie and coat might initially perplex and humor the audience until that pays off in the famed sextet. Moreover, the tone’s wild shifts are allowed to constantly surprise the audience; one moment there’s a very audibly, violent beating or two guns being pointed at someone (in the direction of the audience no less) and in another, a pair of lovers are flirting rather suggestively. The production is taking subtle risks, and based on the audience’s active participation with all of them, they paid off. 

Tremendous Control

In the pit, Nathalie Stutzmann put on a fine display in the first of two Mozart operas that she will essentially author this month. The overture of this opera is one of the greatest pieces of music ever written with its proclamatory D minor chords among the most famous in classical music literature. But it’s become rather cliché to hear contemporary conductors overdo that D-minor section, sucking its dramatic weight dry to make an overemphatic statement that the music is already making on its own. This is often to the detriment of the D major section of the overture, which is intended to be the “giocoso” counterpoint of the opera’s “genre,” as established by the composer himself. And what was clear throughout the overture was that Stutzmann understood this balance. The D minor section was subdued in its accents, with more of an emphasis on texturing and layering of different instrumental lines. From the chromatic rumblings in the violins to the more subdued outbursts in the timpani, the entire section simmered without fully boiling, creating a unique musical and emotional suspense. For those who know the opera, it left a major question about whether this simmer would truly boil and explode when this music returned later (she answered that question with a very potent and unforgettable yes) but for those who were unfamiliar, they got an immediate payoff moments later in the D major section where Stutzmann allowed for the timpani and brass outbursts to come forth with greater force than is often heard in the hands of conductors who want to play this section “lighter” to offset their overwrought opening. Instead, Stutzmann mixed that delicate and playful theme in the strings with the more forceful pronouncements in the timpani to create a textural and musical counterpoint that unified and expressed the contradictory nature of “dramma giocoso.” Throughout that overture, I felt that I was in the hands of someone who knew the story they were telling and how to build it.

And throughout the night, Stutzmann’s interpretation was on point. This orchestral texturing remained consistent throughout, always beautifully intertwined with the singers. This push-pull connection that was so plain to see in the staging was similarly felt in the music-making with the singers given ample space to add ornamentation in arias and even expand recitative passages. The seduction of Zerlina was expansive and felt a lot longer than any I have previously heard, but it was clear that Mattei was given license to take his time here; the resulting musical suspension created added dramatic suspension.

The fantastic pacing of the production no doubt owed a lot to the music’s pacing with recitative and continuo parts seamlessly connected with orchestral and vocal entrances to arias and ensembles. What’s more, tempi were consistently on the speedy side which definitely gave the overall musical landscape consistency and continuity. For my taste, some of the tempi might have been too fast (especially during the Donna Anna – Don Ottavio – Donna Elvira trio during the Act one finale, one of those glorious moments of reflection that, in my view, benefits from greater breadth and expansiveness), but they were clearly comfortable for all the performers and never truly detracted from the musical or dramatic cohesion of the piece.

Don Giovanni Mattei

Credit: Karen Almond

Two Giants

Peter Mattei is one of the best Don Giovanni interpreters in the world right now. It might be him sitting at the pinnacle all on his own. He’s electrifying in every single scene, always surprising you with the different shades and colors he can find both in the physical portrayal and also the musical one. Just look at the opening. He pranced in with Leporello before rushing up the stairs to Donna Anna like some hero on a mission. As he fought away from her, there was a suaveness both in his delicate singing and movements, resisting her, but also being gentle with her. Moments later, at the center of the stage, now at the climax of their bout, he suddenly turned into a monster, violently grabbing her, his voice cruder in its color. When the Commendatore rushed in, suddenly, his entire body relaxed, he stood strong in a more stoic stance, but you could sense a frantic energy as the Commendatore challenged him. He took off his coat, and turned away from the audience, giving the feeling that he might run off. And then he pulled out the gun and fired coldly. As he delivered the sotto voce lines, “Ah gia cade il sciagurato,” his delicate timbre took on a weeping quality that suddenly expressed vulnerability and even remorse. And moments later, as Leporello questioned him about the events, the macho jerk came back, bullying Leporello.

All of this in the opera’s opening scene. One could argue that all of those layers are already there in the drama and music, but not many performers manage to find all of those character colors, much less transition seamlessly and realistically through each of them, with the control Mattei displayed. This nimbleness was apparent throughout the performance. One moment he was warm and cozy with Masetto and Zerlina; the next he was using his formidable frame to stand over them and bully them into submission, all without moving an inch. One moment, he was playing with Masetto, whispering the final lines of his “Meta di voi qua vadano,” drawing in Masetto like a predator his prey, and then seconds later he was pouncing on him, beating him to a pulp. In another he was just having a blast, throwing off the lines of “Fin ch’han dal vino,” even throwing in some ornamentation to this deadly aria, and moments later, he was a snake creeping around to grab hold of Zerlina. During the Act one finale, he suddenly turned into a lecherous monster, seemingly losing control of his own instincts and ripping her clothes off in the middle of the party. And moments later, he was standing up to a firearm pointed right in his face and running away.

Perhaps the most fascinating of Mattei’s exploration of the character came at the start and end of Act two. At the beginning of this act, we see Don Giovanni at his most conniving, using both Leporello and Donna Elvira as tools to get to Elvira’s maid. And what does Mozart give him, two glorious vocal passages. First up is the trio in which he serenades Elvira, followed by the sublime “Deh, vieni alla finestra.” Both scenes allowed Mattei to bathe the audience with his luscious baritone, the rich sweetness of his legato line allowed to flourish; it was fitting that while most of the other performers had darker, cruder qualities to their sounds, Mattei’s (along with Ying Fang’s) was the standout in terms of its delicate purity. Of particular note was that during the repeat of “Deh, vieni alla finestra,” Mattei sang not only with ornamentations, but with a softer piano sound that was almost a whisper. The character of Giovanni challenges the audience throughout the opera and Mattei’s, and Stutzmann by extension, softest singing seemed bent on challenging the listener to draw closer and closer to him. Here was the seducer at his most elegant.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the spectrum was anything but elegance. Throughout the dinner scene, Mattei was a beast, playing around with the food, tossing it around, juggling bread, etc. Was he drunk? It seemed that way, yet Mattei’s overemphatic performance here seemed to aim for more than that simple explanation. And to top it off, he sang with a harshness and edge that hadn’t been present before. It was almost as if the beast, faced with his impending doom, was unleashed upon the world. He was at his most aggressive and conniving, beating up Leporello and ridiculing Elvira by unzipping his pants as she begged him for repentance.

All of this braggadocio powered the final scene where suddenly, his attempts at strength constantly felt short with Mattei’s Giovanni repeatedly hobbled by any physical contact with the Commendatore.

As his counterpart, Leporello, audiences got the chance to see and hear Adam Plachetka. In contrast to Mattei, Plachetka’s bass-baritone has a gruffer nature, even hard-edged and thorny in its middle register. It’s also voluminous and ample, allowing Plachetka a varied range of colors with which he could, and did, play. This was best displayed throughout “Madamina, il catalogo è questo,” where he played up those dark colors throughout the opening before starting to inject more variation in his phrasing during the second section, “Nella bionda,” where his voice took on a slimmer complexion, allowing him to build to the thundering climax of “È la grande maestosa.” Then “La piccinia” was an about-face where the voice was slimmed down and remained in that nimble vein for the rest of the aria.

Plachetka was also formidable in the opera’s second act, especially when he had to “imitate” Don Giovanni, here drawing on a more ample and gentle legato line as he spoke to Elvira. While there’s a notable difference in sound between Mattei and Plachetka’s voice, his color and phrasing made you actually question for a moment whether he had somehow taken hold of Mattei’s baritone; the effect was mesmeric.

Some of the opera’s best comedic moments undeniably came from Plachetka, even if they were often at his expense. Some touchstones included his being thrown and then rolling precariously down the stage at the end of Act one. And that final banquet scene where he constantly grabbed the food and chugged it down as fast as possible. At the very end of the opera, he added a playful grace note as, with the others settling into the new world around him, Plachetka went back to the destroyed table, the symbol of Giovanni’s decadence and death, and grabbed one last bit of food. This gesture, right before the lights turned off, proved not only one last laugh for the audience, but a subtle, symbolic, but also powerful gesture.

Don Giovanni

(Credit: Karen Almond)

A Toxic Dynamic?

As Donna Anna, Federica Lombardi continues to assert her presence as a major Met star. Ironically, the first time I saw Lombardi at the Met was in this opera, but as Elvira, a role that, in my view, she never seemed comfortable in. But Donna Anna is something different completely and from the start of the night and all the way through the end, she was a force to be reckoned with. One might argue that at the core of the conflict in this opera is the one that initiates in the first scene – Don Giovanni tries to get involved with Donna Anna, fails, and this dooms him. Throughout, she’s the only one with a clear-cut goal that creates any real conflict with stakes – she wants revenge. And as such, Donna Anna proves to be a character of steely determination who is willing to even risk the one constant she has in her life (assuming she even loves Don Ottavio, as many skeptics no doubt would question) to get it. Lombardi provided this potent pillar in the story, her Donna Anna fierce and firm throughout.

This was undeniably most noticeable in her singing where she delivered with tremendous force throughout Act one. “Or sai chi l’onore” is a powerhouse aria, featuring a recitative right before it in which the soprano must relive the moments at the start of the opera that we never get to see. It’s the first real moment where Anna is processing what’s happened to her before her emotions explode into a musical storm. Lombardi’s singing throughout the recitative was delicate throughout the opening as she slowly opened up to Ottavio, her voice rising subtly and crescendoing with the orchestra in the lead up to the aria proper. Once there, her voice was a power beam of sound, a weapon cutting through the orchestra and filling the Met, growing stronger with each ascent to the numerous A6 throughout the aria; what’s more, there was a thrilling tension in how far she was going with her vocal resources, always on control, and yet riding that edge. As I listened to her somehow find another gear of intensity as the aria built and built, I couldn’t help but ask how far she could go. The answer was endlessly enthralling. But what’s more, it wasn’t empty vocal virtuosity. The approach emphasized Anna’s own dangerous game in the opera and you could see this furthered by the violent outbursts in other segments of the opera, principally her rushing at Leporello in the sextet. Given that her voice was the most powerful and resonant amongst the ensemble, it was similarly potent that in larger ensembles, she was the most present musically (without overpowering her colleagues however), further centering Anna’s plight at the center of the drama.

This anger and frustration were nicely complemented and even subverted in the final aria “Non mi dir,” where Lombardi’s voice took on a gentler tone and never rose to the same forceful intensity of “Or sai.” Instead, there was a lighter and even brighter tone that was both melancholic and hopeful, suggesting the character slowly coming to terms with her trauma and seeing a light at the end of the tunnel. In this aria, Mozart gives Donna Anna some intense coloratura passages, similar to those of Don Ottavio’s “Il mio tesoro,” that Lombardi dispatched with tremendous agility and bravura. But the most fascinating moment of this aria came at the recapitulation of the main theme. With Ben Bliss’ Don Ottavio laying on the floor, a bit tormented and childlike, she reclined beside him, singing those opening lines on her signature long phrases with minimal breaths in between, on her side. And what’s more, she sang it all with the finest thread of piano sound she could muster. These kinds of staging moments could often feel contrived because of how challenging they are vocally for a singer; but Lombardi’s fluidity with the music, the character beat, and the staging, made this a magical moment for the performer and drama.

As Don Ottavio, Ben Bliss delivered a mesmerizing turn, particularly in matching Lombardi’s intensity. But where we could sense her violent potential, you could see his own reluctance in this department; it all gets summed up by the very end of Act one where he is the one holding the gun and has all the power to end everyone’s suffering by killing Don Giovanni. But whereas the titular character is decisive and cold-blooded, Ottavio’s own indecisiveness is ultimately an exploration of his undoing. And it’s perhaps, in the context of this production, that lack of “strength” which is what gives Donna Anna, who would probably pull the trigger, pause and makes her constantly put off his desire to marry. Other character moments, such as his constant stepping in to deescalate violent encounters, furthered this characteristic in his Don Ottavio. When he wasn’t doing this, he was begging Donna Anna to marry him and even pouting a bit at her constant rejections; it infantilized the character a bit, which played into the opera’s overall exploration of the different shades of toxic males and toxic relationships.

And to that end, his singing further added to these contrasts. Where Lombardi wielded her voice like a weapon in “Or sai” and other confrontation moments, Bliss’ tenor, while grainy in color, had polish in its use. Due to the faster tempi employed in this production, “Dalla sua pace” didn’t so much grow into one emotional crescendo so much as it ebbed and flowed, adding musical tension and even giving us a sense of Ottavio’s hopes and doubts, his voice seemingly growing hopeful in longer lines and then more pained with the ornamentation during the recapitulation. He even interpolated a high note at the climax of “Morte mi da,” which gave the aria a desperate quality that other more gentle never quite manage. It’s in these tonal and emotional shifts that we start to feel the drama differently and Bliss’ interpretation here added a darker layer to the obsessive and even toxic dynamic between him and Anna.

What was interesting here, especially in comparison to the Paris production, was that “Il mio Tesoro,” where Ottavio resolves to seek out help to take down Don Giovanni, was far more relaxed in this version. Instead of violent outbursts, Bliss remained resolute and stable emotionally. He dispatched the aria’s numerous coloratura runs without any noticeable difficulty (they’re ridiculously hard) and the central one, which goes on for four measures before returning to the main melody, was delivered in one breath (most tenors take a breath before the descending scale). What’s more, he embellished the recapitulation of the aria, which contrasted with “Dalla sua pace’s” ornamentation; where that added to his sense of emotional instability, these added fioritura made him come off more confident and potent as a character.


Whether this was always the intention behind the casting, it was fascinating that while Donna Anna, Don Ottavio, Don Giovanni, and Leporello – the supposed “upper-class” were all white performers, the other three roles, Donna Elvira, Masetto, and Zerlina, who are not of the same social status, were all interpreted by performers of color, adding rather potent racial undertones to the story of abuse and [white] privilege.

Ana María Martinez is an electrifying performer and she delivered a potent portrayal of the much-ridiculed Elvira. In this case, she owned up to Elvira’s unbridled passion for Don Giovanni by emphasizing the character’s intense emotions. This was perhaps most prominently felt at the top of Act two when, having decided to forgive Don Giovanni, she rushes downstairs and immediately starts overzealously flirting with Leporello, her emotional repression unleashed. It was this effusiveness that made for her constant reappearances throughout Act one to draw the biggest laughs.

It also allowed for one of the more interesting vocal turns of the night. As with the other performers, there was a decided harshness in Martínez’s vocalization particularly on the high Ab6 throughout “Ah, chi mi dice mai” and “Mi tradi,” giving the arias a certain harshness. But here, this vocal edge emphasized the weariness of Elvira’s Sisyphean plight, the rougher quality also present throughout other scenes where she fought back against Giovanni. This was most notable in “Ah, fuggi il traditor” (which featured some top-notch coloratura runs from Martínez at its climax) and in the quartet. She contrasted these moments of aggressive vocal color with more gentle ones, particularly during the quartet, where her high-lying arpeggios were delivered with floated piano sound; ditto for the trio in the Act one finale, where she also delivered a softer palette in her upper range.

As Zerlina, Ying Fang delivered yet another star turn at the Met. She has already had major successes with “Nozze” and, most recently “Idomeneo.” She possesses a voice of consummate purity, which was on full display throughout both of her arias and during the famed “Là ci darem la mano.” The vocal highlight was undoubtedly “Vedrai, carino,” which she shaped elegantly, her voice rising and falling gently as she caressed Alfred Walker’s Masetto, giving the scene both playfulness and sensuality in equal measure. It was a far cry from her interactions with Giovanni in earlier scenes, where Fang’s Zerlina was literally paralyzed on the spot as Mattei seized control. These counterpointing scenes, emphasized the development of Zerlina’s character, which was further amplified during the Act two sextet when she picks up a gun and points it right at Leporello, both a surprising (given the character) and unsurprising (given the productions propensity to question the violence in each of us) character exploration.

In the role of Masetto, Alfred Walker’s darker bass-baritone aligned well with the darker colors in Plachetka’s timbre while offering a very major counterpoint to Mattei’s silkier sound. He played up the aggressive qualities of Masetto, particularly during his aria “Ho capito, signor,” where his pointed phrasing emphasized his rising anger toward the situation and Zerlina. At the apex of the aria, he hurls Zerlina aside and only the efforts of his entire entourage holding him back can contain his rage.

Finally, in the midst of all this, Alexander Tsymbalyuk sang with imposing force, but the softer edge of his bass added a nice, almost otherworldly contrast to the rest of the cast’s vocal colors.

On the whole, I can’t really think of a production thus far this season that has checked all the boxes. A refreshing take on one of the seminal texts of the art form with a tremendous cast and a top-notch conductor? This “Don Giovanni” has that and so much more. Van Hove’s production is not only worth one experience, but multiple to continue discovering the layers and colors of this most fascinating of operas.


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