The Washington National Opera has opened the spring portion of its season with new productions of two standard repertoire favorites by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Camille Saint-Saëns: Don Giovanni and Samson and Delilah. Both featured arrestingly abstract geometrical sets by Erhard Rom and alluring video projections by S. Katy Tucker, and aspects of each shed light on the cultural circus taking place this side of the proscenium.
In our present age, any mix of sex, violence, and power is a powderkeg waiting to go off. This company is plainly unafraid of controversy. Indeed, it chose Don Giovanni to launch a new public discussion series under the hackneyed title “Let’s Go There.” Its first installment, under the even more hackneyed title “Bad Romance,” presented an all-female panel consisting of a popular culture contributor to National Public Radio, a woman described as a “former” classical music critic, a writer with no apparent connection to any form of music, and the director, E. Loren Meeker. Premiering only a few days before the tarnished superstar singer Plácido Domingo’s name was unceremoniously removed from the company’s young artist program, which he founded in 2002, Meeker’s bitter update of Don Giovanni recasts the work as an accusatory probing of male culpability. It seizes upon the wayward title character’s condemnation to hell not as a told-you-so lesson for hormonal teens or an existentialist challenge to the dull bourgeois mores to which such youths so often succumb, but as a dour social comment on “toxic masculinity,” which is increasingly defined as any form of masculinity. From the first strains of the opera’s celebrated overture, our lusty anti-hero is shadowed (dare one say “stalked”?) by spectral female apparitions. That Don Giovanni never actually kills any of his conquests (they are “survivors,” per the program notes) is beside the point. Even when consensual—let us not forget that Zerlina, whose seduction is the only complete one we see, voluntarily agrees to leave her own wedding to the oafish Masetto and run off with Don Giovanni—his womanizing, we are told, is so foul that he is beyond redemption and must be consigned to perdition’s flames. One wonders: if he did repent at the end, perhaps by offering one of those meaningless blanket apologies to anyone who may have been hurt by his alleged actions, would he then have to “step back” from whatever else he does in life to “reflect” on his misdeeds?
Despite the national hysteria over sexual harassment, the message seemed lost on Washington’s audience, which still dared to chuckle at the enormous number of Don Giovanni’s conquests “documented” (as some voyeuristic Title IX coordinator might declaim in a scolding tone) in his servant Leporello’s rollicking “Catalog Aria”; to giggle at lines suggesting the insatiability of his lust; and to peal with laughter at the distress of the seduced and abandoned Donna Elvira, who, far from being an early avatar of #MeToo victimhood, was originally conceived by Mozart and his librettist Lorenzo da Ponte to be a funny character at whom people rightly should laugh.
Even though Meeker’s production concept proved, if I may, meek, the company registered a modest success. Its main draw was the rising baritone Ryan McKinny in the title role. His vocal performance was steady, but the role demands a singer comfortable in the bass-baritone range, where he was at times wanting. Dramatically, he lacked flair. A successful Don Giovanni needs seductive charm, roguish guile, and a devilish shamelessness, among other qualities that North American (and possibly British) men are no longer supposed to exhibit. It may well have been professionally inadvisable for McKinny to have explored them in this tendentious production, but their absence rendered the character unconvincing. The bass-baritone Kyle Ketelsen’s Leporello was a stronger presence in both voice and character. In her Washington National debut, the soprano Vanessa Vasquez delivered an affecting Donna Anna, though one shorn of the hints of attraction the character often emits in Don Giovanni’s direction. The soprano Vanessa Becerra’s Zerlina scored an excellent debut, without letting the production concept get in the way of the character’s seduction. The spinto soprano Keri Alkema managed the same feat with Donna Elvira, but seemed to lose her way in the part’s coloratura, here added into the score to reflect her amusing pain. The basses Norman Garrett, as Masetto, and Peter Volpe, as the Commendatore, rounded out the cast with promise. Only the tenor Alek Shrader’s weak and tortured Don Ottavio seemed out of place, although maybe the character’s benign wimpishness is the standard to which men are now supposed to aspire. Evan Rogister, Washington’s new music director, led a slow-paced performance of a work whose many scenes demand a more dynamic line.
The following afternoon’s Samson and Delilah announced the arrival of the stunning mezzo-soprano J’nai Bridges, a worthy heiress to the marvelous Denyce Graves, who appeared in the title role to massive acclaim here more than twenty years ago. A debut performance like most of the principal roles in this production, Bridges’s Delilah seduced the Biblical hero Samson and revealed the secret of his strength—his uncut hair—to his Philistine captors without a hint of irony. Beautifully sung as her performance was under John Fiore’s agile baton, in comparing the production with the previous evening’s Don Giovanni it was hard to escape the conclusion that a male seducer is “problematic” but a female seductress is not. Here the program notes talk only about a “test of faith” that Samson must endure after he is betrayed, blinded, and enslaved as a result of this seduction; of course, he cannot be praised for finding the masculine strength to bring down the temple on the entire troupe of his enemies. The practiced tenor Roberto Aronica sounded a bit underpowered in the role, reminding this reviewer of how wonderful Domingo was in it. Unsurprisingly, there was no “Let’s Go There” session scheduled to accompany this production.