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The three operas that Mozart wrote to librettos by Lorenzo da Ponte – The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, and Cosi fan tutti – are often referred to as ‘problem operas.’ They explore complicated questions of sex, desire, love, and fidelity in a balance of comedy and seriousness. Producing them takes a fine, dramatic sense of where to draw the lines, where to leave room for suggestion, and how to interpret the nuances of the poetry and music. When it goes well, it can be brilliant – as the productions of The Marriage of Figaro at the Met during this season and Cosi Fan Tutti there during the last show. But it’s tricky, very tricky.
Throughout opera history, there has been another way of dealing with troublesome libretti: ignore all of the complications and tell the cast to just focus on the singing. Opera stars at premier houses, after all, are the best singers on the planet; their acting training – and often, talent – is at best secondary. Why not play to strengths? This is the approach that Michael Grandage’s 2011 production, revived this year at the Met, takes.
In theory, I disagree with this school of thought, but it has a long and distinguished history, dominating operatic thought during e.g. the bel canto era and swathes of the 20th century. And when it highlights artists such as those the Met assembled for this production, it’s hard to quarrel too forcefully with the results: first-rate voices showcasing some of the most brilliant music ever written.
The problems with this approach are apparent, however, almost as soon as the action opens. Don Giovanni is (as many an unsuspecting theatergoer has learned with start throughout the ages) is simply Italian for Don Juan, the legendary seducer. But as the masked leading lothario fumbles clumsily at the hips of the Spanish noblewoman Donna Anna on her balcony, he resembles nothing so much as Don Rapey. How, one wonders, has he ever bedded 2,065 women (as his servant, Leporello, played by Luca Pisaroni, is about to tell us in the famous and well-sung aria, “Madamina, il catalogo è questo”) without previously being discovered and killed? Often, characters who weren’t singing simply wandered about the stage.
But then Peter Mattei, the Swedish baritone playing the title role, and Elza van den Heever , playing Donna Anna, start to sing–and you forget all of that. Mattei’s voice effortlessly filled the hall, suggesting in its very tones the nobleman’s languid ease. He’s very well paired, too, with Pisaroni as his comic sidekick. The latter is possessed of a droll bass-baritone; when you add in the fact that Pisaroni’s even taller and lankier than Mattei and is dressed in what look like Don Giovanni’s cast-off clothes, the result is an excellent parody of the master, one the Venezuelan bass-baritone played to without overdoing it.
But this night was all about the ladies. Van den Heever is the first of a trio: the second, fellow soprano Emma Bell, plays Don Giovanni’s previous lover Donna Elvira, and Kate Lindsey, mezzo-soprano, appears as Zerlina, his would-be peasant conquest. Between them, they stole the show.
Van den Heever’s serious part is gifted with two of the most powerful serious arias Mozart wrote for soprano, Or sai chi l’onore and Non mi dir, and she makes the most of them, her strong, well-toned, technically perfect voice holding all spellbound. Elvira’s part is a bit goofier – the helpless, rejected, but self-aware lover – and Bell is careful to balance vocal lightness with passion when needed. Her star moment comes in the second act’s Mi trade quell’ alma ingrata, which again brought down the house. Zerlina’s part is written to be less spectacular than Anna and Elvira’s, as befits a peasant in 18th century thinking, but the sprightly, coquettish Lindsey makes the most of it, displaying the mellow side of her warm mezzo-soprano while comforting her beaten boyfriend with Vedrai carino (“You’ll see, dearest”) and, in less faithful moments, her passionate side during the duets with Don Giovanni.
I must sadly note that another singer who’s given a pair of stunning duets by the composer, Dmitry Korchak in the role of Don Ottavio, could not live up to it. Korchak, who probably stands less than 5’9” to my eye, simply could not fill the whole hall. The Met is huge, and quite probably Korchak is excellent in some of the smaller, traditional European theaters. But the Dalla sua pace and Il mio tesoro arias had him literally standing on his toes, straining unsuccessfully to fill the house. The contrast to the female leads was notable. (Don Ottavio’s character is fortunately otherwise not very prominent, but those are two of the best tenor pieces in all opera.) The veteran James Morris was solid, if not as ear-catching as the last time I praised him, as the Commendatore and the Commendatore’s statue.
The set and costumes by Christopher Oram, were period but functional, befitting the overall approach of the production, was period but functional. Four moveable sections of grey stone, arched, three-story building facades serving in various configurations as the palaces of the Commendatore and Don Giovanni, the city streets, or, with somber statues installed, the graveyard. The preference for function over form shown through in, for example, the iron ladders and the electric bulbs – not gas – inside the period lamps fixed to each section; scenery clearly was not the focus of the producer’s vision. The special-effects people, on the other hand, won more glory with the pyrotechnics that accompanied Don Giovanni’s being dragged to hell.
New York Philharmonic conductor Alan Gilbert, leading the orchestra, employed the clipped phrasing some prefer when approaching Mozart, an approach that emphasizes the composer’s mathematical qualities at the expensive of his lyrical expressiveness. This is again not my preference, but it has much to be said for it. More worryingly, the orchestra started off sounding sharp, and someone badly bungled the coordination with Mattei during the Champagne Aria. On the other hand, the players had their moment of glory during the Act I finale, when Mozart has three ‘bands’ of them onstage, playing three different types of dances simultaneously – and it works. I still can’t believe my eyes.
The night was a bit like that: some decisions I disagreed with, a few mistakes or miscastings, but at the end, it offered so much that showed off Mozart’s musical genius that it was very difficult to argue with the result.
Nicholas M. Gallagher
Nicholas M. Gallagher is a staff writer at The American Interest. You can read him online at http://www.the-american-interest.com/byline/nicholas-m-gallagher/ or follow him on Twitter at @ngallagherai