Sunday, March 01, 2020

Don Giovanni at WNO (2020)

Quick thoughts on WNO's new Don Giovanni last night...

I walked into this show erroneously assuming WNO was bringing back the very successful production from ~2010 or so but this an entirely new (and somewhat less successful) joint. For some reason this new production sets the action in a hyper-modern that looks a bit like a law firm lobby, while keeping the costumes in the standard vaguely 18th century feudal aesthetic. It's not terrible, just somewhat puzzling. Why not just put everyone in modern dress?

The key directorial intervention is a series of ghostly female figures in white that represent Don Giovanni's victims, appearing at various points throughout the show and ultimately acting as the avenging spirits dragging DG down to hell. This seems perfectly fair, if not especially unexpected or particularly inventive in light of the topical #metoo frame being added to Don Giovannis far and wide these days. 

However, and this is a hair-splitting quibble, but figures in white trudging around REALLY suggests that these are ghosts. At the risk of being dragged for being a Don Giovanni apologist (he's definitely terrible and deserves to be sucked into hell! etc), he's not, you know, technically a serial killer, in which case ghost victims would make absolute sense. This "misapplied" image also seemed a bit off in light of the production's very weak characterization of DG himself, of which more below. Also, I couldn't help thinking about showgirl ghosts from Follies, which is a very odd recurring image to have in one's head during a production of Don Giovanni.

On the plus side of the casting ledger we got the exquisite Donnas Anna and Elvira of Vanessa Vasquez and Keri Alkema, respectively. Vasquez, a 2017 Met Council winner, demonstrated an exquisite, silvery sound here, with thrilling unforced security across the role's demands, and an especially fiery quality in Anna's recitative. My one regret was the plodding tempo for her "Or sai chi l'onore"  which prevented her from getting real traction in the piece and doing something more with it.

Alkema's Elvira was probably the highlight of the evening for me, and represented some closure after Amanda Majeski's pretty but ultimately inert Elvira in Chicago back in the fall. For the character to work, Elvira can't be merely "conflicted"--she has to be a hot mess. In addition, it's important that she reads decidedly older than Donna Anna, and that her desperation in part comes from that place. She has to be a more vulernable and pathetic character than simply a pissed-off version of Donna Anna. It's not always pretty, but the impact of a generic Donna Elvira vs. a Donna Elvira who understands the parameters of the character is night and day. Alkema appears to get all this, and boasts a rich, fascinating voice and sense of vocal artistry to boot. Her "Mi Tradi" was by turns sobbing, defiant, and melancholy, a real triumph that fully exploited the emotional possibilities of the piece.

Kyle Ketelson possibly garnered the biggest applause of the night, with an exceptionally watchable Leporello reminiscent of an late-90s Seth Green character (I mean this in the best possible way), far removed from your standard-issue exasperated buffoon Leporello. In a production which did not generate much organic comedy, his ability to inject personality and great comic timing into his interpretation of the part was a major asset.

In the "perfectly pleasant if not particularly distinguished" lane, we had Vanessa Becerra, whose pretty soprano offered an appropriately light and youthful quality sound for Zerlina, and WNO young artist alumni Norman Garrett, whose substantial yet flexible baritone was a nice fit for Masetto.

Now for the less good. Ryan McKinny has had a good track record at WNO, with fine back to back appearances in the Ring Cycle and Figaro a few years ago. He has a lovely sound most comfortable in a slightly high lying baritone space but not lacking for volume, and a sensitive approach to text.

But he was a curiously absent Don here. I'm not sure if how much of this was directorial direction but his Don Giovanni felt at times like a disinterested observer of the mayhem he was generating, delivering little in the way of either the menace or seduction theoretically driving that mayhem. Directorial direction certainly seemed to come into play in the lead up to the party scene which had him not just drinking, but actually drunk and maybe a little sleepy and over it as a result of all that drinking. "Fin ch'han dal vino" was staged(?) as a careless mess, with McKinny seeming to stumble over words. 

Perhaps this made sense in the broader strategic context of this production, with its #metoo framing: portraying DG as some kind of virile, malignant force of nature actually validates his crimes, instead we should see him as a sad little man remorselessly exercising his ill-gotten privilege and destroying people's lives as a byproduct. 

I'm not opposed to this take, though it creates some practical problems for the mechanics of the show as some of the basic motivating impulses for scenes fall flat and the other characters' reactions to DG don't make much sense. Moreover, a focus on DG's accountability at the hands of his victims, as attempted here, doesn't feel that cathartic when his villainy doesn't register as strongly. I could imagine a production being really creative and deliberate about this choice and making it work, here it mostly felt like part of the plot was missing.

Or maybe I am overthinking it and McKinny is just not cut out for this role and the outsized personality it requires. Musically, he also had difficulty in the lower reaches of the part. I appreciate as much as the next person a really gorgeous and lyrical "La ci darem la mano" but there seems to be a pernicious trend afoot of casting Don Giovanni's that don't really have this lower heft because they sound nice up top, and that's not really the part.

Also in the problematic arena was tenor Alex Shrader, who struggled through Don Ottavio. Shrader sang the tenor part in the National Symphony Orchestra Messiahs here before the holidays and unfortunately the vocal challenges he had in those performances are still evident. He has a very attractive sound in the middle voice, but occasionally suffered cracks and needed to switch into a very light head voice to reach everything above the staff. Overall his volume was an extremely noticeable notch below the rest of the cast. "Il mio tesoro" was cut. Not sure what is going on here but hope he is figuring out how to work through it.

Evan Rogister, the new WNO principal conductor (or whatever they are calling it) led an uneven performance in the pit. The opera house orchestra sounded very nice in parts and there were a lot of moments of sensitive shaping from Rogister, but this opening night performance was also rife with coordination problems in both individual sections and ensemble moments like the first Act finale. A disproportionate share of this seemed to fall on McKinny's head so perhaps this was also a rehearsal issue, but there is a lot of tightening up to do here (good thing that WNO has scheduled something like 12 of these shows). There were also some annoyingly pokey tempos, including the aforementioned aria for Donna Anna and the finale which remained stuck in a low gear, perhaps out of an abundance of caution to not let the evening's final moments unravel.