A production of Don Giovanni at the 2008 Salzburg Festival set Mozart’s opera in a stark, realistic forest. The Rome Opera has tried something similarly unconventional for its new production by using a set (designed by Samal Blak) consisting of little more than a skeletal tree, augmented by cartoon-like clouds and the shadows that the tree and the characters cast against a prevailingly beige stage.

Yet the unorthodox setting was, at worst, a minor irritant compared to the veteran director Graham Vick’s brazen treatment of the action. You could sense early on Vick’s determination to find new ways of presenting the opera’s familiar events. Some of his ideas were clever, some silly, some irreverent. But the cumulative effect was too much. For me, one truly misfired: his decision to portray Donna Elvira as a nun. Seeing this passionate woman, with such a huge capacity for romantic love, dressed in a habit totally blunted her character.

Alessio Ardui and Vito Priante in Don Giovanni. Photo: Yasuko Kageyama, courtesy Rome Opera.

It was also troublesome that Don Giovanni completely eluded divine punishment. We’ve seen productions in which he somehow pops up at the end, a reminder of the ubiquity of womanizers. But here, when Giovanni is threatened by infernal creatures, a giant representation of the arm of the Lord from Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam appeared, with the finger pointed at Giovanni. He simply ripped the finger off and walked away. Vick’s flippancy continued through the epilogue, as Giovanni returned, climbed up the tree, and received Donna Anna’s bra, which she threw to him as a souvenir of their encounter at the start of the opera.

It was the conclusion of Act I, however, that provoked whistles and catcalls on October 5. Zerlina’s aria “Batti, batti” hinted at what was to come when the singer delivered it on her hands and knees, as if expecting a spanking for having yielded to Giovanni’s advances. The ensuing party at Giovanni’s house devolved into a veritable orgy in which principals and choristers alike participated—fully clothed, mind you, but with plenty of rough sex. These and other touches, many of which the opera could have tolerated had they not been so numerous, sabotaged the fast-paced and often interesting drama that Vick’s direction facilitated.

Marianne Croux and Emanuele Cordaro in Don Giovanni. Photo: Yasuko Kageyama, courtesy Rome Opera.

The young baritone Alessio Arduini sang with style and lyricism as Don Giovanni. He recently graduated to the title role from that of Masetto, and his portrayal will benefit from more seasoning, but his Giovanni was a pleasure to see and hear. Vito Priante, in splendid voice, made Leporello a full-fledged character; in case you wondered, his riveting account of the Catalogue Aria made no mention of a nun among Giovanni’s conquests.

Another first-rate performance came from Maria Grazia Schiavo, who sang with radiant tone and brought an intensity to her portrayal of Donna Anna that made her every utterance count dramatically. (But why did this aristocratic lady carry around one of those dreary plaid plastic bags you see at European airports?) Schiavo was matched ideally by Juan Francisco Gatell as Anna’s suitor, Don Ottavio, who sang with liquid tone and offered a memorable account of “Il mio tesoro,” its long coloratura run sung in one breath; given that the production followed the opera’s original Prague text, Ottavio’s other aria, “Dalla sua pace,” was omitted.

Maria Grazia Schiavo, Alessio Ardui, and Juan Francisco Gatell in Don Giovanni. Photo: Yasuko Kageyama, courtesy Rome Opera.

Salome Jicia’s singing as Elvira was less consistent, and the sight of her as a nun (Anna Bonomelli designed the updated costumes) detracted from her otherwise strong acting. Under the circumstances, the omission of Elvira’s great aria “Mi tradì quell’alma ingrata” (like “Dalla sua pace,” composed for the opera’s Vienna premiere in 1788) was less disappointing than it might otherwise have been. Marianne Croux brought a nice, full voice to Zerlina’s music, and Emanuele Cordaro was a fine Masetto. As the Commendatore, who made his entrance pushing a walker, Antonio Di Matteo was dispatched effortlessly by Giovanni but sang imposingly.

Jérémie Rhorer’s performances of Mozart operas with his period-instrument band, Le Cercle de l’Harmonie, have met with much favor, and here he led the Rome Opera’s modern orchestra in a smartly paced performance alert to period values. Attacks were crisp and textures transparent, and he interacted nicely with the singers. With fewer intrusions from Vick, this Don Giovanni could have offered greater rewards.

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