Don Giovanni, SF Opera

Written by:
John Sullivan
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‘Don Giovanni’

Opera in two acts by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Libretto by Lorenzo da Ponte
Conducted by Nicola Luisotti
Directed by Gabriele Lavia
Starring Lucas Meachem, Ellie Dehn, Serena Farnocchia, Marco Vinco, Kate Lindsey, Shawn Mathey, Ryan Kuster
San Francisco Opera, War Memorial Opera House
Oct. 15 – Nov. 10, 2011 (new production premiere)

Mozart, that clever devil, knew how to thrill two audiences with one Don. By creating (with librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte) “Don Giovanni” as both a comedy and morality tale, he offered a farce on the sexual mores of the ruling class to amuse his enlightened public while providing a warning that the sins of the flesh lead to hell, thus pleasing whatever religious-minded censors were left among his Viennese patrons. In the right hands, the masterpiece can elicit an exquisite admixture of merriment and dread. Achieving that fine balance, however, can elude even the most sincere of productions.

And that, regrettably, is the case with San Francisco Opera’s new version, among the most performed works by the company (this marks the 23rd season it has been staged here). This rendition (directed by Gabriele Lavia) is uneven, never quite firmly anchored on either side of farce or tragedy in its recounting of the downfall of a smooth operator at the hands of his victims. While the production has its soaring moments (owing to superb voices, notably Lucas Meachem in the title role and Kate Lindsey as the cunning Zerlina), an ill-conceived scenic design (mirrored windows by Alessandro Camera that fly in and out, suggesting spaces without really creating them) and Lavia’s slapstick-reliant staging (tumbles, trips and tired set pieces) combine to set this version adrift.

Among the cast, which is mostly blameless for the artistic misfire on view, baritone Meachem commands attention as a genuinely convincing lothario, coloring his performance with a touch of the modern-day sex addict that imparts a libidinous dimension missing from most portrayals of the role as a common lecher. His Giovanni, complete with five-o’clock shadow, is actually quite appealing: we never look upon his “sins” as anything deserving disgust; Meachem’s antihero in dark glasses instead elicits the same wry smile we accord bad-boy actors in supermarket tabloids. And such is his power that we also are genuinely seduced by Don Giovanni’s wooing of Zerlina (in “Là ci darem la mano”) and truly moved in his “Deh vieni alla finestra” aria, where he seems to plead with the entire opera house to succumb to his charms. Of the characters who do, mezzo Lindsey’s Zerlina evinces a credible vivacity, melting in the don’s presence while later consoling her betrothed, Masetto (the appealing Ryan Kuster, an Adler fellow debuting in the role), with a lusty “Vedrai carino.” Italian soprano Serena Farnocchia recreates a Donna Elvira of sufficient vengeful obsession, her “Ah chi mi dice mai” a jilted lover’s anthem to getting even just as her “Mi tradì quell’alma ingrate” negates it with her confession of pity. As the harried servant Leporello, Italian Marco Vinco (making his U.S. debut) conveys masculine bravado with his confident bass, though he falls victim to the antic busy-ness of Lavia’s staging, particularly in the famous Catalogue Aria, where he upstages himself with the folded pages of the prop.

The single (nearly fatal) flaw in the casting becomes evident the moment Ellie Dehn as Donna Anna and Shawn Mathey as Don Ottavio essay their first scene. Fine singers individually, they lack onstage chemistry together, and their chaste duets assume the stilted formality of a recital. Dehn, in particular, could exude more passion in her coloratura passages; this soprano won hearts as a wise, wounded Countess Almaviva in last year’s “Le Nozze di Figaro,” but that same regal bearing doesn’t jibe with her character here, so bent on avenging the slaying of her father (a workmanlike Morris Robinson) at Don Giovanni’s hand. Mathey (taking on the role as an 11th-hour replacement for Topi Lehtipuu, the Finnish tenor who withdrew owing to an unspecified “illness”) makes a valiant stab at playing a nobleman, genteel in his delivery of “Il mio tesoro,” but coming off as a wimp in his interactions with Dehn (who, it must be said, barely makes eye contact with the hapless tenor). That this couple, whose revenge obsession should drive the story with the same power that motivates Don Giovanni’s sexual compulsion, lack erotic spark accounts for the production’s occasional drift into drowsiness.

But just when the interest onstage meanders, the pit comes to the rescue. No one could accuse conductor Nicola Luisotti of slow pacing. He keeps the orchestra on tempo for the most part, his energetic arms bouncing visibly above the rail, producing clear accompaniment during the opera’s many recitatives (he even plays the pianoforte during a scene change) while boosting the volume in the numerous trios and quartets—often placing the singers (as well as the full chorus) at a disadvantage. In fact, Luisotti has yet to learn when to tamp down the sound his invigorated players produce (a knack the former music director, the buttoned-down Donald Runnicles, admirably possessed).

None of the singers, furthermore, get any help in telling the story from the weird framed mirrors dropped into most scenes. Director Lavia attempts to elucidate (in a distinctly unclear program note) this weird device as a “hall of mirrors” that reflect “human failure and solitude” (so now you know). The other inexplicable piece of scenery comes in the last scene’s enormous scarlet curtain, its exaggerated folds dwarfing the action (Lavia decided against staging the epilogue, and this final miscalculation ends the opera on an abrupt bit of stage trickery). What the drapery evokes (the blood of revenge? the fires of hell?) is up for interpretation. As an emblem for this wayward production, however, it serves its purpose: you don’t know whether to giggle or gasp.

John Sullivan

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