Don Giovanni lets the audience have things both ways: We’re allowed to live vicariously as the don seduces the most iron-willed of women in less time than it would take most of us to read the personals. Then we get to play finger-wagging moralist as we watch seduction after seduction go awry. And Mozart and his sly libbretist, Da Ponte, make sure they go seriously awry. Plagued by an avenging fury of an ex-lover, a pair of women who refuse to take his antics lying down, both of their pissed-off fiancés, and the towering statue of a protective father he killed in a scuffle after attempting to rape the guy’s daughter, Giovanni just can’t catch a break.
In the Washington Opera’s new production, Uruguayan bass Erwin Schrott’s Giovanni captures to perfection the sweaty self-doubt and overcompensating swagger of a never-lose player caught in an accelerating downward spiral. He balances preening confidence with world-weariness, impulsive carnality with a sense of ironic and self-deprecating detachment, and he underpins it all with an ever-mounting paranoia that lets us see his fearnot just his defianceas the Stone Guest drags him to hell.
It doesn’t hurt that Schrott is a supremely natural actor, or that his 20-something, Hollywood-worthy looks place him somewhere between Johnny Depp and Jimmy Smits, with just a hint of Antonio Banderas. (His many-tendrilled, product-heavy mane of black hair definitely has that Latin-lover thing going on.) Most crucially, his warm, full-bodied, evenly produced bass has all the litheness and carrying power the role requires. Schrott is as complete a Don Giovanni as I have seenvery much an MTV-era interpretation, but one that feels entirely appropriate in Mozart’s original setting.
The other men in the cast have their work cut out for them competing with such a charismatic Giovanni, but by and large they rise to the challenge. With his rolling, sepulchral bass (not to mention his adept work on stilts that bring him up to an impressive 10-foot height), Fyodor Kuznetsov is terrific as the statue of the slain Commendatore. Hung Yun brings a rounded baritone and plenty of feisty personality to the part of Masetto, whose flirtatious, country-gal bride-to-be, Zerlina, proves easy pickings for the don. Daniil Shtoda is poised but colorless in the poised but colorless role of Ottavio, the betrothed of Donna Anna, producing a seamless bel canto line with his exceedingly small, slightly adenoidal tenor. Although bass Robert Pomakov exudes less buffo charm or gallows humor than many singers do in the role of Giovanni’s endlessly put-upon servant, Leporello, and although his important low notes often disappear into inaudibility, he’s a reliable enough singer and an affably deadpan presence through most of the evening.
The women share a striking number of vocal traits. Each of the three sopranos possesses a voice with a warmly shimmering core, an incisive edge at full volume, a weak lower register, and high notes that tend to shade into whiteness. Irina Mataeva’s lyric sound is the most cleanly and evenly produced, though her Zerlina is a much cooler customer than the part’s usual doe-eyed soubrette. There’s more passion to be found in Natalia Ushakova’s Donna Anna, even if her vocal production sounds a little precarious and her middle range takes on a certain glassiness.
No such problems afflict the role of Giovanni’s spurned ex, Donna
Elvira, as sung by Tatiana Pavlovskaya. (Did WashOp get some sort of package deal on this nearly all-Russian cast?) As Elviras go, she’s more of a stoic sufferer than a scenery-chewing force of nature. But Pavlovskaya generates the requisite level of electricity with her big, vibrant voice, and she’s responsible for most of the production’s moments of uncommon vocal beauty. In terms of uncommon physical beauty, these three sopranos are well-matcheda fitting troika of glamorous, romantic opponents to set against Schrott’s pretty-boy Giovanni.
And thanks to stage director John Pascoe, we get to meet quite a few more of the ladies in Giovanni’s life. In a cannily choreographed dumb show played out during the overture, specters of the Don’s deceased conquestsa tangle of decomposing Giselles, Ophelias, and Miss Havishamsslither out from under the floorboards and mingle with a crowd of masked party guests (Giovanni among them) destined for a ball at the Commendatore’s home. Then, at key points throughout the opera, video projections of these women sweep across the backdrop: We see them crossing themselves as Anna and Ottavio swear vengeance on her father’s murderer, then pointing in horror at their names on a page in Giovanni’s book of conquests. No surprise, then, that these damaged, abandoned women eventually rise from their graves to help the Guest take Giovanni down to blazes.
It’s a terrific conceit, and just one instance of Pascoe’s perceptive and finely wrought theatrical vision. As imaginative as WashOp’s recent Aida was empty-headed, and as site-specific to the DARCon space as that production was perversely resistant to it, this fresh staging of Don Giovanni lavishes its attention on the personal drama of the piece without losing sight of the storytelling potential in its scenic projections.
It helps that the screen surfaces for those projections are ingeniously designed. Visual interest centers on a half-stage-width screen shaped like an unscrolled sheet of parchment, over which appear lists of Giovanni’s exploits, names of the women he’s seduced, or key words of the narrative. (Think “vendetta.”) Sometimes the parchment will catch fire or become soaked with spilled blood. At others it will fill with the video footage of the dead women or, as at the beginning and the end of the opera, transform into a gargantuan PBS telecast, as we watch a live video feed of Plácido Domingo conducting the orchestra. When not receiving specific visual information, the screen melds into the stage-filling backdrop, which is occupied more often than not with roiling black-and-white cloudscapes and picture-postcard vistas of old Seville.
Almost without exception, projection designer John Boesche rendered these effects to serve the action rather than overwhelm it. There’s every bit as much spectacle here as there was in Aida, but without Aida’s hyperactive scrim panels and stage-obscuring curtains, the audienceincluding, this time, the side audienceis welcomed into the unfolding story, not held from it at arm’s length.
Pascoe’s blocking of the singers also democratically allows the action to be seen clearly from all angles. There are telling behavioral observations throughout, as in the subtly played moment when Giovanni realizes that Anna has recognized him as the masked intruder who assaulted her and killed her fatherand in Giovanni’s final, affectionate embrace of Leporello once he’s resigned himself to divine retribution. The director emphasizes the story’s darker implications over its irreverent humor, but there is one hilarious bit of stage business involving a passing procession of clergy and hooded, self-flagellating penitents who can’t stop doing over-the-shoulder double-takes at a squabble between Giovanni and
Elvira. (As a punch line, a geriatric nun trails behind the procession to play a little coquettish cat-and-mouse with the don.)
If this staging has an Achilles’ heeland it’s not a terribly serious oneit’s the languorous pace of the recitatives. The musical dialogue proceeds at a naturalistically leisurely pace, with a good deal of silence between phrases. Though laudably lifelike, the playing of many of these passages could use some pointing and tightening. In general, however, Domingo keeps things moving at a moderate clip. Mozart’s achingly beautiful wind writing is, for the most part, prosaically handled, and repeated string figures tend to chug along dutifully. But if Domingo’s conducting has shown a more affectionate, personal touch in Verdi and Puccini, things here are at least on solid stylistic ground. And the TV-monitored coordination between the stage and the scrim-concealed orchestra is (with the exception of one ensemble train wreck about five minutes before the end of Act 1 on opening night) laudably tighteven if the hall reveals itself to be even less friendly to Mozart than it was to Verdi. The smaller-scaled voices sound a little lost among DARCon’s diffuse acoustics, while Mozart’s lighter and more transparent orchestration registers as a bit distant and insubstantial.
The remaining production elementsfrom Pascoe’s ironclad pillars and movable stairs to Sara Erde’s castanet dances to the nice little bit of swashbuckling swordplay choreographed by Brad Waller for the finale of Act 1are all entertaining and well-thought-through, more than compensating for any moments of musical torpor or puniness. Against all odds, Mozart, that most intimate of opera composers, has triumphed in the glorified aircraft hangar WashOp is subletting through December. The company can be proud of this Don Giovanni: It’s not only good under the circumstances, it’s also one of the more engaging and insightful stagings WashOp has mounted in years. CP