Sunday, December 08, 2019

Don Giovanni at Lyric Opera

Quick thoughts on Lyric Opera of Chicago’s Don Giovanni (the performance on Saturday November 30th) which impressed with overall high musical values and a first rate cast but was also just a little bit boring.

Lyric deserves props for assembling a really tremendous cast here, each of the principals formidable rising or recently established important exponents of these roles on the stage today. In this heady company, Rachel Willis Sorenson’s Donna Anna stood out among the women, her ample, steely soprano a great vehicle for a relentlessly anxious, broken Donna Anna.

Ying Fang has a gorgeous sound, a bright soubrette timbre but with healthy weight behind it, which she used in service of a particularly beautifully sung Zerlina. I’m not sure if she really got to a place that was more than (very) pretty, though. This was truly about as good as one could hope for as far as beautifully sung renditions of Zerlina’s music, but the layers that transform this character from comedy to something more meaningful did not quite register.

Amanda Majeski needed a moment to calibrate her voice for Donna Elvira’s treacherous opener, but settled quickly into a creamy, attractive sound with plenty of edgy bite for Elvira’s self-righteous Act I declarations. Unfortunately her rendition of “Mi Tradi” failed to deliver on this early promise, Majeski offering a curiously inert, effortful performance in which the piece seemed to be getting the better of her (also unfortunate were some smudged pitches in the final runs). Don Giovanni can be a long evening (when did we stop doing two intermissions for Mozart?) and by the time Elvira’s final statement rolls around the audience in sore need of big enthralling moments in the final string of arias. This “Mi Tradi” did not get there.

Lucas Meachem turned in an intimidating, highly musical Don. His sound leans a shade lighter than the deepest, bass-inflected Dons, so instead of thundering we get a much more agile, nuanced take on this music than expected. Rarely have I heard the Don’s “seducer” arias sound more compelling. Moreover, his Don is a disturbingly familiar modern character, a sociopath but also the smartest person in the room and completely in control of his agenda.

Ben Bliss has a near ideal sound for Don Ottavio, though he was noticeably a notch quieter than the rest of the cast. His very lovely but not particularly distinctive takes on Ottavio’s big arias also fell a bit flat. Not helping was a feature of this production that has some of the big arias performed in front of the curtain, which tended to raise expectations. Matthew Rose’s Leporello rounded out the high quality cast though had repeated coordination problems with the pit.

James Gaffigan’s leadership in the pit was very fine at points, with a brilliant overture and exciting, stylish conducting, but he also contributed to some of the lack of momentum that detracted from the evening, with curiously slow tempi at times and repeated retreats into four-square phrasing. 

The production, directed by Robert Falls, randomly updates the action to Spain in the 1930s, which may be something of a trend with the Met’s art deco Marriage of Figaro. The production design has its moments, as in an overflowing garden for the graveyard scene, but its  “fragmentary realism” approach, with elements of the set lavishly realized against a bare stage sometimes conveyed “we wanted to wow you but didn’t have enough budget to finish the job.” The imposing whitewashed structures have a sterility about them that grows bland by the end of the night.

Falls’ chief dramatic intervention here is to really step up our repulsion for the title character, dramatizing Don Giovanni’s abuse of his victims in graphic detail. During “Fin ch'han dal vino,” Don Giovanni chokes and slaps a woman kneeling before him while another feels him up from behind. In the final scene, Zerlina’s maid wriggles bound onto the back of the stage, apparently having become a full-on sex slave since her earlier seduction, and proceeds to writhe around through the entire scene until rescued by Donna Elvira on her way out.

These are shocking, grim things to put onstage, and they immediately draw our attention from whatever musico-dramatic action is occurring in the story at that moment. The concern seems to be that a finer point needs to be put on Don Giovanni’s loathsomeness, that an “honest” staging needs to underline what a monster he is lest the audience think he is merely a lovable cad.

I can sympathize with this impulse to some degree. Don Giovanni is an indictment of abusive power and male violence but nonetheless has an ambivalent, shifting relationship to enabling ideas about the allure of power and suffering. I think a production that found inventive and shocking ways to lay bare the power dynamics submerged in the farce could be very revealing.

Unfortunately, this production doesn’t seem to be trying to engage us in a deeper reading of the  work as much as it is simply hedging its bets. The souped-up monstrousness of Don Giovanni blithely coexists with a fairly routine production, down to goofy choreographed bits in the group numbers. By the end, the more transgressive material for the Don seem like crude attempts to stack the evidence against the character, simplifying the narrative rather than complicating it further.
Which brings us to a final rant.

We’re really getting to a breaking point with Don Giovanni stagings where the sexy blocking is so repetitive you can almost predict when someone’s about to get straddled. There’s just so. much. rubbing. all. the. time. Also so much dropping to the floor and pretending to almost bang, so many hands up skirts, and so many neck gnawings. These staging tics fail to evoke anything that looks like an authentic, sexually charged scenario, frequently make the singers look uncomfortable, and undercut the singers’ ability to convey some of that sexiness through the music. We need a moratorium on excessively randy blocking now; hopefully that will give directors a chance to come up with some novel ways to stage these scenes.

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