On Friday night, the Metropolitan Opera staged a new production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni—a production by Ivo van Hove, a Belgian. In 2016, he won a Tony award for A View from the Bridge. We will get to the production in due course. It is the singers who matter most in an opera performance, right? Actually, it is the conductor, often.
She was Nathalie Stutzmann, from France. She was a singer, a contralto. Now she is a conductor. This is a rare transition. I once heard Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau conduct. I never heard him sing. (This is the opposite of what you would choose.)
I could pick at Mme. Stutzmann’s conducting, for a paragraph or two. But it was good conducting—conducting that reflected common sense and musicality. Tempos tended to be on the brisk side. Which is not to say the wrong side. And yet . . .
If the Catalogue Aria is fast, it loses some of its refinement. And, for the life of me, I don’t understand why performers don’t want audiences to hear the notes and words of the Champagne Aria. They sing it, and play it, and conduct it, like they wanted to get it over with.
At the same time, I have heard the two tenor arias killed by slowness. On Friday night, each had a tempo giusto, which was gratifying.
Playing the pianoforte, in the pit, was Jonathan C. Kelly, who was apt and tasteful all through. This makes a difference, in an opera with continuo, such as Don Giovanni.
The opera was beautifully sung—beautifully sung. That may seem a prosaic or unnecessary thing to say: these are opera singers at the highest level—of course they sang beautifully. But consider this: in a Giovanni, you want the singing to be well-articulated, incisive, characterful. Beauty may be an afterthought, or a bonus. On this particular night, there was an unusual amount of beauty coming from the stage.
Start with the baritone in the title role, Peter Mattei, the Swede. After a Met Don Carlo earlier this season, I wrote that Mattei
made a beautiful Rodrigo. Absolutely beautiful. Should Rodrigo be beautiful—sound beautiful—to say nothing of “absolutely beautiful”? Sure, why not? Still, this Rodrigo was unusual. Mattei sounded like a lieder singer. An aria in his mouth was songful.
As Giovanni, Mattei sang creamily. (I have never written that about a Giovanni, and expect never to do so again.) When he sang a serenade or some other seduction, you could hardly blame the target for succumbing.
Giovanni’s partner in crime, or servant in crime—Leporello—was sung by Adam Plachetka, the Czech bass-baritone. He, too, owns a beautiful voice: rich, sizable, and glowing. Moreover, he made a canny Leporello, properly insolent.
There is spoken dialogue between Giovanni and Leporello. Did Mattei and Plachetka sound Italian? Well, they sounded like foreigners who had lived in Italy for a decent spell.
Sticking with the men in the cast, Don Ottavio was sung by Ben Bliss, the American tenor—who is a model of the lightish lyric tenor. As a rule, he sings freshly, pliantly, and beautifully. So he did as Ottavio. Another American, Alfred Walker, a bass-baritone, was Masetto. He sang in sturdy, handsome fashion.
Reviewing a Met Lady Macbeth this season, I wrote that “a Ukrainian bass, Alexander Tsymbalyuk, was the Old Convict, singing gorgeously (as usual).” In Don Giovanni, he was the Commendatore, commendable.
Now to the women, starting with the soprano in the role of Donna Anna, who was Federica Lombardi. She was in Idomeneo at the beginning of this season. Said I,
Signora Lombardi is what you might call a “dramatic soprano, Mozart branch.” She has what I characterize as “lyric heft.” She made a very good Elettra.
And she made a like Donna Anna. Now, the other “Donna,” Elvira, can come off as a bit of a shrew. She is always showing up on the scene to spoil Giovanni’s fun. She scolds him, sometimes stridently. Handling the part with great maturity last Friday night was Ana María Martínez, the soprano from Puerto Rico.
Ying Fang was Zerlina. I have been writing about this soprano’s Mozart since 2016, when she appeared with the New York Philharmonic, to sing Exultate, jubilate. Her singing of Zerlina was correct, pure, and delectable. Absolutely delectable.
The new production—Ivo van Hove’s—is an “updated” one, set in what I can only call the skinny-tie era. Unless I am mistaken, there is one set on the stage: austere yet serviceable. Cinderblocky. To my eye (which could be deceived), the production looks like one that a company without a lot of money could have paid for. In any event, it is a smart production, serving the opera rather than disserving it.
A couple of things left me shaking my head, however. At the outset, Giovanni is unmasked. He is not disguised at all (unless I missed something). How, then, does Anna not know who he is? Also, Giovanni simply whips out a gun and murders the Commendatore. Shoots him in the stomach. There is no struggle, there is no wrestling. It’s outright murder.
Ordinarily, isn’t the killing somewhat ambiguous?
One more thing: Giovanni is a rotten man—a rapist and probably a murderer. But he also has the airs and manners of a gentleman (when not raping and murdering). Toward the end of the opera, in this production, he eats like a barbarian—which does not strike me as very Giovanni-like.
Maybe another word, concerning the production, or stage direction: this Giovanni is very funny. Yes, there is murder and associated evil. But, damn, is this Giovanni funny, with high honors going to Plachetka and his Leporello.
At the end of the opera—the end of his score—Mozart “looks back to the Baroque,” as I like to say. He is brilliant when he does this (and brilliant when he doesn’t, to be sure). What the composer and his librettist, Lorenzo Da Ponte, put together in this opera stands as one of the greatest achievements in all of art. If we forget that, a re-listening, or a re-watching, reminds us.