This year’s Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, Florence’s annual Maytime music festival, did not open under favorable circumstances. In February its superintendent, Alexander Pereira, who also ran the city’s year-round opera, part of the Fondazione del Teatro del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, resigned following accusations of financial improprieties. Ticket sales were temporarily suspended, and the festival’s opening production, a new Don Giovanni by the British director David Pountney, was shelved in favor of an unassuming, six-year-old production obtained from Spoleto’s Festival of the Two Worlds. It was hardly a celebratory occasion for Zubin Mehta, the foundation’s honorary conductor-for-life, who turned eighty-seven on April 29, the day before the opening.
The production began in a novel way with projections during the overture of excerpts from the philosopher Søren Kierkegaard’s essay on Don Giovanni proclaiming the artistic greatness of the opera. The action thus seemed to start as a didactic exercise as the curtain rose on the darkened storage room, perhaps of a museum, in which were housed statues of the opera’s characters; they were brought to life by a man whose identity was made clear only at the end. As the opera proceeds, the play-within-a-play concept fades into the background, with the action moving outdoors for Act II, as the sets by Dante Ferretti and Francesca Lo Schiavo colorfully (at least for a while) represented a Seville town square and cemetery. Maurizio Galante’s costumes in eighteenth-century style were an asset.
As in the Metropolitan Opera’s compelling new production, which opened earlier this month, Giovanni shoots the Commendatore in cold blood before the old man even has a chance to avenge his daughter’s honor in a duel. But here Giovanni is portrayed less villainously. At the end, after being dispatched to Hell, he makes a return as the characters revert to statuary form, giving a sly look to the audience as if to acknowledge that he put on the show for their benefit. Overall, the direction needed more of an edge, and the stage picture was rather gloomy.
But several singers made strong impressions. The baritone Luca Micheletti, who sang the title role with Riccardo Muti conducting in Turin last fall, invested Giovanni with a seductive, liquid tone. He could be suave in moments like the Serenade, which was nicely varied in dynamics, and fierce when the libertine’s temper flares. As Leporello, Markus Werba, in a resonant voice, delivered one of the most polished accounts of the Catalogue Aria I’ve heard in ages, and he and Micheletti, both fine actors, played off each other tellingly. Ruzil Gatin sang Don Ottavio with a light voice and crooning manner that was not to my taste.
Among the women, Jessica Pratt excelled as an impassioned Donna Anna, particularly in her exciting rendition of “Non mi dir.” At times I wished that Anastasia Bartoli, as Donna Elvira, sang with a more evenly produced musical line, but her soprano is handsomely resonant and she delivered a rousing “Mi tradì.” Benedetta Torre and Eduardo Martinez were attractive as the peasant couple Zerlina and Masetto.
Mehta conducted with undeniable authority but rather sedately, although he made his slowish tempos work.
My week in Italy was the third European trip I’ve made since the pandemic and the first since the Metropolitan Opera announced in February the contents of its 2023–24 season, which was precipitously altered at a late hour to include a record number of new operas—six—many of a politically correct nature. According to the Met, new works have performed better at the box office than revivals of repertoire staples during the brief period since it resumed operations in September 2021. It is an open question at best, however, whether audiences will return to see, say, Terence Blanchard’s dreary Champion a second time, as they presumably would for a revival of the company’s new Don Giovanni with a strong new cast.
Unfortunately, Don Giovanni is not in the 2023–24 season’s repertory. Its only Mozart opera will be the highly abridged, “kiddie” Magic Flute at holiday time. Indeed, next season looks disappointing, less for the overrepresentation of new operas than for the lack of inspiration of the other offerings. The composers of the other two operas I saw—Lucia di Lammermoor and Die Walküre—are also slighted. Neither Donizetti nor his contemporaries, Rossini and Bellini, are represented, which means a total absence of bel canto operas, despite the availability of singers for them. Tannhäuser, the only Wagner opera, will return in a forty-six-year-old production. Yet there is a new Carmen even though the current one, well regarded, dates from 2009. The Met’s predilection for Puccini—four operas next season—looks especially anomalous in context. Baroque operas, you ask? Forget it. I could go on.
At a time when opera in the United States is undergoing a sea change, with many companies trying to reinvent themselves as instruments for social justice, it is refreshing to encounter La Scala in Milan, the Teatro di San Carlo in Naples, and the Maggio Musicale in Florence conducting business as usual post-pandemic, warts and all. The artistic product is what counts, and from all appearances it takes shape free from the corrosive effects on merit of “diversity, equity, and inclusion.”