At the Lyric Opera
By Dan Zeff
Chicago – Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” has been called the greatest opera ever written, an unconventional blend of comedy and stark realism, ending on a note of fantasy. Mozart’s score is stunning, offering performers some of the greatest arias and ensemble pieces in the opera canon. The story, however, may ask for some tolerance from the viewer.
The Lyric Opera is currently reviving “Don Giovanni” in the 2014 production directed by Chicago’s own Robert Falls, artistic director of the Goodman Theatre. Falls’s version is gimmick free, the major departure from the original being a shift in the action from the 1600’s to about 1920. Otherwise, the work stands on its own as a repository for some of the greatest music in the opera canon.
The opera is Mozart’s spin on the adventures of the legendary Spanish rogue Don Juan (Italianized by Mozart into Don Giovanni), a ruthless sexaholic who is irresistible to woman of all classes, age groups, and marital situations. The opera has been called a comedy and indeed the action is peppered with comedy, some of it very broad. But the story also includes a cold blooded on stage murder and a horrifying account of Giovanni sexually assaulting a resisting woman off stage.
Mozart has written “Don Giovanni” for a core group of eight characters, centering on Giovanni and his comic valet Leporello. Much of the plot also focuses on three of the countless number of women the Don relentlessly pursued (Donna Anna, Donna Elvira, and Zerlina). The male characters are rounded out by Anna’s father the Commendatore (murdered by Giovanni), Zerlina’s fiance Masetto, and Don Ottavio, Anna’s suitor.
Giovanni lives to sweet talk and bed women, discarding his successes and moving on to the next conquest. The man may be a swine but he is a singled minded and dedicated swine. Leporello keeps a ledger that itemizes all the females his master has seduced in France, Spain, Turkey, Germany and who knows where else in Europe. The ledger runs to many hundreds of names and constantly increases in membership.
The opera requires a credible title character and the Lyric has cast well with Lucas Meachem as the Don (Davide Luciano assumes the role in December). Meachem’s Don Giovanni exudes self confidence and manly charm, able to turn the heads of females almost as soon as he makes initial eye contact. He has a honey-tongued skill for talking his way out of the most compromising situations, and even victims like the strong-minded Donna Elvira fall for his wiles even as they admit the man is a deceiver and a betrayer. Giovanni builds an international reputation as a self centered lecher who turns inconstancy into an art form but he never seems to run out of compliant, and short term, partners
Some spectators may grow a bit impatient with concept of virtually endless supplies of women who allow themselves to be pushovers for Giovanni’s seductions. But that’s the way libretto writer Lorenzo Da Ponte presented the story and Mozart’s ravishing score overcomes any disbelief in the gullibility of Giovanni’s bedmates.
Matthew Rose navigates the comic role of Leporello with just the right blend of farce and understated comedy. Rose, who also has a commanding voice, never turns the hapless valet into a buffoon. He’s a long suffering and much abused employee who is stuck with an impossible master. At the end of the play the valet practically sighs with relief at being released from the control of his vile master.
The production soars on the vocal and acting brilliance of Amanda Majeski (Donna Elvira), Rachel Willis-Sorensen (Donna Anna), and Ying Fang (Zerlina). I especially liked Majeski, who is able to convince the viewer that her Elvira can both love and hate Giovanni. It’s a complex role, Elvira’s strength of character at war with her passion for the despicable Giovanni. Willis-Sorensen’s Anna must operate in a narrower emotional range, her character consumed with grief for the loss of her murdered father and obsessive hatred for his killer. But her soaring fulsome voice was a show-stopper.
Ying Fang earns highest commendation as Zerlina, a young woman faced with balancing challenging relationships with the importunate Giovanni and her jealous fiancé Masetto. Ying Fang’s powerful and expressive voice emerges from a petite and fetching physical presence. Surely there will be a Madama Butterfly in her future.
Brandon Cedel is fine as Masetto, who takes an emotional and physical pounding in trying to preserve Zerlina from the craven Giovanni. Mika Kares appears only at the beginning and end of the play as the Commendatore, his final appearance as a bronze statue come from the grave to Giovanni’s dinner table, forcing the villain down to the fiery netherworld where he belongs. Ben Bliss plays Don Ottavio, who spends most of his stage time pleading to be Donna Anna’s husband.
Will Spangler’s set designs include effective realistic fragments of building exteriors, huge rows of grape vines outside Giovanni’s villa, and a detailed church interior. Ana Kuzmanic has designed a wardrobe of vivid costumes, especially for the three starring women. Her statue costume for the Commendatore has the real patina of metal, adding a supernatural frisson to his confrontation with the arrogant Giovanni at the end of the opera. Rounding out the design team is lighting designer. Duane Schuler. August Tye is the choreographer. James Gaffigan conducts the splendid Lyric pit orchestra, maximizing the strength and passion of Mozart’s score.
This is a “Don Giovanni” that respects the Mozart original, eluding any unnecessary directorial bright ideas. Viewers who choose to locate modern #MeToo feminist issues in the narrative are free to do so. But I’ll settle for Robert Falls nailing a production that makes the narrative accessible and offers the spectator a master class in beautiful singing.
“Don Giovanni” runs about 3½ hours, including intermission, and the second act tends to drag a bit. But the production thrives on the wonderful singing, especially from the three starring women. And the final destruction of Giovanni as he slides down his dinner table into the fires of hell is a corker.
‘Don Giovanni’ gets a rating of
“Don Giovanni” runs on selected dates through December 8. Tickets are $39 through $299. For information about times and days of performance, visit lyricopera.com.
Contact Dan: ZeffDaniel@yahoo.com. November 2019
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