The young lady sitting in front of me opined, “I never knew that opera could be so much fun.” And so it seemed for Boston Lyric Opera’s full house at the Shubert for the opening night of Don Giovanni Friday; it was too bad that a Hollywood ending could not have been contrived for this jolly production set in a LA LA Land banquet hall. Maybe they should have cut the statue scene instead of the epilogue.
After interviewing the stage director and the Donna Elvira [here], I had been curious to view the implementation of the mise en scene. “Audiences [will] see Don Giovanni from the point of view of his conquests. The machismo sometimes celebrated in other productions is definitely a liability here,” General and BLO Artistic Director Esther Nelson told us. Well, there was no real clue to that perspective in this conceit until the final scene. It’s fine to assert such things, but we should be able to discern the viewpoint without a laser pointer. And there was no shortage of machismo or machinations from the pumped-up Stanley Kowalskiesque beefcake of Duncan Rock’s Don. The opera turns on the Don’s masculine irresistibility. Who would want him to be otherwise?
The playing of the orchestra was mostly fine under David Angus; he artfully underlined the contrasts and dynamics, telling the complete story of bravado, romance and terror in the overture. Indeed the only moments of terror came from the overture—but we’ll get to the statue scene later. There were some occasional opening night rough patches for the strings, especially in the sometimes onstage minuet at the end of act one, and the two double basses did not give enough foundation in the sponge-like Shubert. The natural horns had some fine moments, Loewi Lin’s cello dueted gorgeously with Zerlina in “Batti, batti,” and the fortepianoisms of Brett Hodgdon were always apt.
Condensed to a trim 2.5 hours, and enacted in real time, it positively flew by, but I did miss the onstage wind band in the Don’s Last Supper with the whimsical references to “Non più andrai.” And scene changes indicated only by transformations in lighting coloration and the occasional movement of a prop did little for our eyes.
Laura Jellinek’s set consisted of three turquoise angled walls suggesting the lobby of a faded resort hotel. It contained an unexplained portrait of Jackie O in the manner of Egon Schiele, a three-section doorway hung with a portiere of Woolworth’s finest, and a metallic top carnivore. When the latter disappeared at the beginning of Act II, we half expected it to reappear as a Trojan panther carrying the Commendatore’s ghost. In any case, the set became quite tiresome except when it presented a gorgeous foreshadowing stage picture for the trio (“Protegga il giusto cielo”) of Elvira, Octavio and Anna backed with a red stage wall psychorama. The set’s disambiguation at the conclusion was even more effective theater.
Tilly Grimes costumed most of the cast, and all of the choristers, in very handsome and detailed 18th-century courtly dress of a level far beyond the possibilities of what could be rented for a masquerade ball in today’s Hollywood. Thus, much of the production looked entirely conventional and period-correct. Only Massetto, as something of a hipster with pork pie hat and hightops, Zerlina in an Annette Funicello beach party dress, and the Don in conventional white tie, belonged to the present. Why had those three decided not to rent costumes?
The placement of all of the action in the Don’s ballroom sometimes stretched credulity. Would a Commendatore in present day Hollywood accompany his respectable daughter to a louche party and then be outraged when she landed on a casting couch?
The singing had few moments of electricity. David Cushing’s Massetto had the healthiest, most un-pushed and un-covered tone of the men. I can’t think of another production when that character was the most sonorous. Kevin Burdette imbued his Leporello with hilarious physical and vocal comedy, but slender and middle aged, he was an odd match for his ripped Don. Duncan Rock will probably make a great Billy Bigelow in his next outing, but for this opera, his instrument lacked command and nobility.
Meredith Hansen forged some bright steel as Donna Anna, and her coloratura woke her sleeping father, whose surprising revival upstaged her somewhat. We beheld a chirpy Zerlina in the person of Chelsea Basler with vocalism to match. Program cover girl Jennifer Johnson Cano portrayed Donna Elivira’s rages and mood swings with a dramatically produced mezzo which summoned and held our notice. Kneeling in a swirl of red taffeta under an overhead spot, she made for an arresting tableaux. Her “Ah! Fuggi il traditor” and her “Mi tradi,” from a vocal and Mozartean standpoint, stole the show.
And speaking of Italian, the “projected translations” promised on the program were neither projected nor translations. Rather, the two medium sized flat panels displayed rather wooden synopses as simplifications of DaPonte’s words. For instance, the author’s “Notte e giorno faticar/per chi nulla sa grader,” (“Night and day I slave/ for one who does not appreciate it”) came through as “What a mess. My boss is screwing things up again.” And some early titles said “revenge me” when they meant “avenge me.”
In her BMInt interview [here] auteur Griffen was unhappy when I spoke of her design as a unit set. Her room, she said, would “do things.” But we unfortunately had to wait for the last scene for any such.
Spoiler alert: Stop here if you want to be surprised by one of the next performances.
As Leporello and the Don conversed at the beginning of the finale, a mahogany partner’s desk rolled out from the wings to serve as a banquet table, but there would be no banquet. After the Don’s final rejection of Elvira and Leporello’s invitation to the stone guest, the three turquoise walls parted company as a black drop rose to reveal the entire crimson psyche. As the guest entered, the black curtain dropped again in front of the parted walls to obliterate any trace of place. All that remained was the mahogany desk. After being frozen by resonant Steven Humes’s Commendatore, Giovanni was somehow induced to lie supine on this Last Supper bier. A silent chorus of apparent victims in horns entered. And in the moment that ensued, we finally understood how the tale was being told from the victims’ perspectives: one of the ladies with horns leapt astride Giovanni, and hiking her skirts, simultaneously violated and strangled him. The show ended with Duncan Rock’s weightlifter’s groans instead of the didactic epilogue.
But are the ladies in Giovanni’s past really victims? Would we not all like to be either the Don for a Day or his love partner? Maybe so, unless our paramours become, as Bernard Gavoty’s essay for the 1978 Salzburg production suggests, love-hungry creatures who hound us to death.
Sure, the Don was a rake and a beloved rogue, but one is left pondering, did the Don ever rape anyone? Did he ever commit murder? Was BLO’s sexually tinged execution scene something Mozart or DaPonte would have countenanced? Surely Molière and his successors would have had Don Octavio slay the Don in a fair duel had the statue not intervened. And if one stages the work in modern times, when women have agency and are no longer constrained from acting on their appetites, the moral force of the story no longer carries any sway.