Don Giovanni at the Met x 2
Metropolitan Opera House
Conductor – Louis Langrée
Continuo: Dennis Giauque, Harpsichord
David Heiss, Cello
Mandolin Solo: Joyce Rasmussen Balint
Production – Marthe Keller
Set Designer – Michael Yeargan
Costume Designer – Christine Rabot-Pinson
Lighting Designer – Jean Kalman
Choreographer – Blanca Li
Stage Director – Gina Lapinski
October 4, 2008
Don Giovanni – Erwin Schrott
Donna Anna – Krassimira Stoyanova
Don Ottavio – Matthew Polenzani
Donna Elvira – Susan Graham
Leporello – Ildebrando D’Arcangelo
Zerlina – Isabel Leonard
Masetto – Joshua Bloom
Commendatore – Phillip Ens
April 24, 2009 Broadcast
Don Giovanni – Peter Mattei
Donna Anna – Erin Wall
Don Ottavio – Pavol Breslik
Donna Elvira – Barbara Frittoli
Leporello – Samuel Ramey
Zerlina – Isabel Bayrakdarian
Masetto – Joshua Bloom
Commendatore – Raymond Aceto
Mozart is my favorite composer. I’m lucky enough to be able to sing Mozart fairly often, and when I sing Tchaikovsky, or even Rachmaninoff, Mozart is there too. Needless to say, I was delighted when the editor asked me to fill in for him at the final performance of Don Giovanni this season. On the other hand, if you approach an opera performance as a singer, you will always be aware of style, and what you have learned is appropriate for a particular composer or a particular work. For that reason, if a singer does something that doesn’t fit Mozart’s classical style, or if something doesn’t work technically, it comes between the opera and me, and the result will be unsatisfying or wrong. Fortunately the result of this performance—a very special one, because it marked Samuel Ramey’s 25th anniversary at the Met, and he was presented with a c. 1824 score of Don Giovanni and a fragment of the Met curtain after the first act—was nothing less than a fine show. On the level of spectacle and drama this performance was very strong. The entire cast acted well, and most of them sang very well, but there were a few disappointments.
Michael went to one of the earliest performances of the season in early October, and from what he tells me, he had a more satisfactory experience than I did. He got sick a few days later and didn’t write a review at the time, so I’ll try to include his thoughts in this review. He also told me that some musical friends were saying it was the best performance of Don Giovanni they had ever heard. He said he could understand their feeling, although it’s hard to write such a superlative in a review, and there were some shortcomings, he said. Our performances had only one cast member in common, Joshua Bloom as Masetto, and we both agreed that he was absolutely great as a singer and an actor in the part.
Another thing we agreed about was the orchestra’s playing. It was good but not the most outstanding. It always strikes me how much more confidently orchestras play in the overture, when they don’t have to worry about the singers. In this case the orchestra was strong and confident in the overture, but less secure when they had to cope with the singers and their action on stage. Michael thought that the conductor, Louis Langrée, tended to produce a sound and a rhythm that was just a little too light for his Germanic tastes. Even though the violins were bright and the lower strings dark and strong, Langrée generally maintained too deferential a presence in respect to the singers, and in the many fast passages, articulation was often slurred. He thought Langrée had a perfectly intelligent grasp of the score, but that his approach was too giocoso without enough dramma. It seemed like an old-time Met performance, which would have been heavily slanted toward the singers—but the Met Orchestra of today is much more capable than it was back then. Of course his favorite conductor for Don Giovanni is Furtwängler.
The singers gave such attention to their acting and did it so well, that I should say something first about Marthe Keller’s and Michael Yeargan’s production. The set was very simple, and I liked that. The action could really flow without a lot of sets and props moving around, getting in the singers’ way, or making them wait or slow down. Basically the production was straightforward and free from a lot of the distracting tricks you see so much of these days. There was not a lot of interpretation, I didn’t think, although there were certainly some unusual touches. In the opening scene Donna Anna seemed to be holding Don Giovanni back, as if she were upset about his leaving her. Was that the source of her anger and determination throughout the opera? Does that mean that she went into the convent to mourn Don Giovanni and not her father? In any production she never shows much sign of loving Don Ottavio. It makes sense, doesn’t it? Michael thinks that Marthe Keller sees Don Giovanni as essentially not much different from the other citizens of the Spanish town, at least its lower classes, who spend their nights drinking and wenching in the streets and taverns, but he does it with a passionate enjoyment that makes him sublime in his own coarse way. Masetto and Zerlina, of course, are no models of rectitude either. Only at the very end, when Don Giovanni attacks Donna Elvira in a shockingly violent way, he seems worse than amoral. Has he become a raging beast at that point? I think he goes into a rage from self-disgust and the realization that he cannot or will not change. At that point he becomes self-destructive and harmful to other people—suicidal in a way, but not in a literal sense, more like an angry man who is going out on a binge. Soon after that Don Giovanni confronts the statue of the Commendatore, who appears mingled with Don Giovanni’s own reflection in a mirror. This bit of action is so complicated that I had trouble following it. Mozart doesn’t really give producers much time to set up such elaborate stage business, in any case. I think a simpler treatment would have been more effective here. In the final scene, as the surviving characters look to the future, champagne is poured, but Don Ottavio is forgotten at first. Finally the poor man is remembered and can toast a situation he cannot control.
Then there’s the whole histoire of Zerlina’s red shoes and Donna Elvira’s red gloves…but on to the singers.
What I mean about style and appropriateness came out immediately in Peter Mattei’s Don Giovanni. His light, lyrical voice struck me as quite inappropriate for the part. Don Giovannis usually have a dark, substantial timbre, especially in Russia. Michael pointed out that Tito Gobbi took on the role with a similar voice in a Salzburg production under Furtwängler, and that it was one of his favorite interpretations. In any case Peter Mattei handled everything with such poise and elegance, from acting to phrasing and color, that you had to love him. As you might expect, his serenade was just fabulous. I’m still not convinced that he was right for the part, but I loved his performance nonetheless.
As Donna Elvira, Barbara Frittoli’s voice was as beautiful as ever, but something seemed to be wrong. She appeared to be holding back from giving her full voice, backing down one her climaxes. She seemed most comfortable in her more lyrical lines where she could sing as prettily as she wanted. Otherwise her phrasing struck me as rather over-refined and precious.
Erin Wall started out very well as Donna Anna, both as a singer and as an actor, but she seemed to flag later on, when her voice began to sound either uneven or forced. This insecurity inhibited her expression, as well, at that point. Was she sick that day?
As I said, Isabel Bayrakdarian as Zerlina and Joshua Bloom as Masetto were absolutely great in every way. They even danced beautifully. Pavol Breslik was a very light, small-voiced Don Ottavio. He’d be perfect in Rossini, but he did justice to his Mozartian part with his beautiful sense of line. And finally there is the great Samuel Ramey, who sang Leporello superbly, although his voice was on occasion a little wobbly. Raymond Aceto was a fine Commendatore, although in the dramatic situation, it seemed as if some electronic manipulation might have made him a more frightful apparition.
The October performance was much more integrated and consistent, it seems, judging by what I thought of this one. Erwin Schrott and Ildebrando D’Arcangelo have sung Don Giovanni and Leporello together all over the world, and they act and sing together seamlessly. Of course Schrott has the rich, dark sort of voice you’d expect in a Don Giovanni. D’Arcangelo is a young Leporello, more a companion in crime than the older Samuel Ramey. Susan Graham was an expansive, feeling, plush-voiced Donna Elvira, notably more imposing than Donna Anna, sang impeccably, if a trifle stiffly by Krassimira Stoyanova, but of course that’s her nature. Isabel Leonard sang and acted perfectly as Joshua Bloom’s Zerlina that evening. Her Zerlina was unusually complete, and she really threw herself into her seduction scene with Masetto. Matthew Polenzani was a handsome, full-blooded Don Ottavio. He showed no interest in presenting his character as a bloodless, repressed stuffed shirt, and this made his good-natured resignation all the more touching in the end.
Michael saw that Don Giovanni on a Saturday evening following a matinée of Salome, which also struck him as a singer’s performance—and a great one at that. Patrick Summers’ conducting was better than adequate, but lacked the color, imagination, and sweep necessary for a great performance. Then, later in the season there was a director’s performance, Robert Lepage’s extravagant Damnation de Faust, which seemed to subdue even James Levine himself, if only slightly. Fortunately Daniel Barenboim’s Tristan, presumably Levine’s Ring, and not least Jirí Belohlávek’s sensitive Onegin and Rusalka preserved the new Met’s reputation for not only excellence in the pit, but a real interpretation. Ultimately that was the most serious thing missing in Louis Langrée’s intelligent, but all-too-fluent execution of the score.
There he goes with that Wagnerian conductor-worship of his! Before I could say anything, he said that he was not like that at all. After all he reminded me that our Capital Opera Nozze di Figaro was pure singer’s opera—we didn’t have an orchestra at all, just Michael Clement at an electronic keyboard—and he thought it was great. Michael said this. I tried to cut it out, but I realized that he, being the editor, will just put it back in again.