IN: Reviews

Don Giovanni Lite Delights Theater Crowd


Kevin Burdette, as Leporello (Charles Erickson photo)
Kevin Burdette, as Leporello (Charles Erickson photo)

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?

JenniferJohnson Cano, John Bellemer, Meredith Hansen, (Charles Erickson photo)
Chelsea Basler as Zerlina and David Cushing as Massetto (Charles Erickson photo)

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.

Resume here.

Jennifer Johnson Cano, John Bellemer, Meredith Hansen (Charles Erickson photo)
Jennifer Johnson Cano, John Bellemer, Meredith Hansen (Charles Erickson photo)

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.

Lee Eiseman is the publisher of the Intelligencer.


14 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. This is one fine review, the best I have read in your online journal.

    I especially appreciated the veiled sarcasm; this production deserves a good deal of criticism. As you imply, the Don is neither a rapist or murderer.

    Comment by Allan Kohrman — May 3, 2015 at 5:50 pm

  2. It seems to me that the reviewer is right to challenge attempts to trivialize the great figure of Don Giovanni. If he did not exist, women would invent him — and this would be a great gift on their part. He haunts the imagination of men and women alike because he is the symbol of desire that remains desire. And what Mozart realized is that it is this very unfulfillability of desire in us that carves out a need for ideality and gives birth to opera, music, poetry.

    Comment by Ashley — May 3, 2015 at 9:08 pm

  3. Perhaps I am missing the joke. Don Giovanni is both a rapist and a muderer. The opera begins with the attempted rape of Donna Anna and the murder of her father as he attempts to prevent her rapist’s escape. You can interpret it differently if you choosr, but I promise you that Mozart and da Ponte and their audience did not. As for desire, of the three women whom he “seduces” in the play, one, Donna Anna, does not desire him at all, Zerlina is at least seduced by his money and his title as by his person, and the third complains as much of breach of promise as of her broken heart. The opera is much more cynical, and more beautifully honest, than these romantic interpretaions allow.

    Comment by SamW — May 4, 2015 at 7:17 am

  4. Not sure I’ve ever seen a review start off by mocking and insulting the “theater” audience. Really? Having seen many versions of this tale sung and staged, this production is not less serious or worthy because it attracts novice opera-goers or because it features direction, staging, and perspective that are fresh and engaging. Come down off your high horse and maybe you’d discover how magical it can be for an audience when opera written to be fun, actually is!

    Comment by Jon — May 4, 2015 at 8:08 am

  5. Well, another way of being beautifully honest is to consider the Commendatore-Anna-Ottavio triad in light of Freud’s speculation that a daughter inevitably signifies death/abandonment to a father (our Western wedding rites acknowledge this in part by allowing the father to “give away” his daughter.) How does Anna transfer the love she has for her father to her future husband Ottavio? Donna Anna feels guilty about desiring Ottavio — about disrupting her close connection to her beloved and admired father. Enters the Mythical Seducer, spirit of criminal desire, Night “Intruder”: who takes on the responsibility of/blame for the murder-of-the-father and is then in turn destroyed by the father’s vengeful wrath.

    The problem with interpreting Mozart’s Don Giovanni as a literal story of date-rape (what you mean, I’m guessing, by “more cynical and beautiful honest”) is that it fails to do justice to the mythical, “supernatural” elements. But yes, there are a myriad ways to interpret the opera, so I’m not in any way rejecting the “cynical” way. The fact that Cherubino’s “non piu andrai” makes an appearance suggests a Beaumarchais-like critique of the dissolute pre-1789 aristocracy. I just think that the reviewer was rather brave to raise the question of our ambivalence towards the problematic issue of seduction. A staunchly “cynical” interpretation is a way of avoiding this ambivalence, perhaps.

    Comment by Ashley — May 4, 2015 at 9:16 am

  6. Don’t forget, he attempts to seduce a fourth — Elvira’s maid — while Leporello leads Elvira into the night, and he reports to Leporello a fifth seduction on his way to the graveyard (“What if she had been my wife?” “Meglio ancore!” All the better!)

    P.S. Non Piu Andrai is the count’s aria.

    Comment by Martin Cohn — May 4, 2015 at 9:36 am

  7. Yes, the count’s aria — but it is addressed to Cherubino, who represents the benign aspect of the problem (and is shipped off to war, cutting his life as an amorous butterfly short. Now THAT’s cynical…)

    Nice that you cite the “fifth seduction on the way to the graveyard”: our human life in a nutshell! Worthy of Camus and Sartre.

    Shouldn’t we focus some of our moral concern on Zerlina’s “Batti, batti, o bel Masetto”?

    Comment by Ashley — May 4, 2015 at 9:54 am

  8. Oh no, the Viennese Witchdoctor puts in an appearance. Mesmer was the preferred charlatan of the Mozart family, but by the time he was grown Wolfgang had seen through the old humbug, as delightfully demonstrated in Cosi Fan Tutte, and presumably would have seen through the twentieth-century equivalent as well. There are really no grounds for imagining any Elektra-complexities between Donna Anna and her father, or any ambivalence towards her attacker, who is not a Mythical Seducer but a genuine interloper. None of the characters demonstrates any confusion about this. When Leporello accuses him of forcing the daughter and killing the father, all the Don can say is that the old man asked for it. When Leporello asks if the daughter asked for it too, the Don berates him and changes the subject; even he is not willing to make such a claim, though apparently others are willing to make it for him.

    What dominates the Don’s character is not desire, but appetite. Seduction is for him not the expression of a primal urge, but an obsession, practically a hobby. He collects conquests the way an earlier Don, Don Quixote, collected chivalric romances.

    Comment by SamW — May 4, 2015 at 12:11 pm

  9. Jon certainly reinforces some of the reviewer’s viewpoints.
    Great discussion elsewhere, though.

    Comment by denovo2 — May 4, 2015 at 2:40 pm

  10. “Non più andrai” is sung by Figaro.

    I have not yet seen this production, but I do not like the way that the publicity materials spotlight (in this order) Don Giovanni, Donna Elvira, Leporello, and Don Ottavio, relegating the rest of the cast to “with…” status. Donna Anna is the prima donna in the original sense of the word, the highest soprano, a role interpreted by the likes of Joan Sutherland, Margaret Price, Martina Arroyo, Arleen Augér, Suzanne Danco. Surely you also need a strong Elvira (foils for the previously mentioned singers were Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Pilar Lorengar, Kiri te Kanawa, Lisa della Casa) but it’s also been sung by mezzo-sopranos like Christa Ludwig or our own late Lorraine Hunt Lieberson.

    Comment by Thomas Dawkins — May 4, 2015 at 6:24 pm

  11. Dawkins is quite right re. Non piu andrai.

    Comment by Martin Cohn — May 4, 2015 at 9:08 pm

  12. About the death of the Commendatore: At first the Don declines to fight “an old man,” so it’s all in how you play it. This spring, we’ve had the chance to see Mozart and Handel played in so many different ways, most of them reviewed here. Whatever your preference for the staging, what a lot of glorious singing we have enjoyed.

    Comment by LoisL — May 5, 2015 at 8:33 am

  13. During the long history of this opera, the female lead wasn’t always considered to be Donna Anna. For a fair amount of the 19th century, Zerlina was given top billing. Actually the question is moot, as Don Giovanni, like Cosi Fan Tutte is certainly an ensemble opera.

    “Non piu andrai” makes its appearance as a joke actually–it was incredibly popular in Prague after
    Le Nozze di Figaro scored a big success and the aria was played to death there. Its appearance as tafelmusik in Don Giovanni gave Leporello a chance to comment that he knows THAT music way too well.

    Comment by William Fregosi — May 8, 2015 at 2:52 pm

  14. Anybody has comment on the fact that the second and third acts have been “butchered” of some beautiful “aria” and they cut the “Finale”. That’s a rape! There are no reason to justify that.

    Comment by Amedeo Vetere — May 9, 2015 at 3:52 pm

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