A day of reckoning has come [again] for opera’s most prolific sexual predator. In the wake of #MeToo, opera companies everywhere have had to grapple with how to solve a problem like Mozart’s Don Giovanni, which reliably ranks among the top-10 most performed operas worldwide, yet has always posed tricky questions of interpretation. Is the title role a debonair rake whose magnetic charisma proves irresistibly seductive to nearly all around him, including himself? A narcissistic hedonist driven by pure, blind, insatiable appetite? A misogynistic serial rapist incapable of shame or remorse, in whom spite burns brighter than lust? What exactly happened in Donna Anna’s bedroom immediately before the curtains rise? What transpired with Donna Elvira further before, that so propels her pursuit and tethers her very being?
Last summer in a live broadcast to plazas across Britain and computer screens around the world, Royal Opera House (in a revival of its 2014 Kasper Holten production, which travels to Houston Grand Opera this April) chose to make love, not (gender) war by casting the ever-dashing Mariusz Kwiecień as a Don Desire who can barely pry himself away from amorous Anna after a consensual tryst at the opening. Elsewhere, administrators have scrambled to commission program book essays and convene panels to dismantle any potential #MeToo minefields in even otherwise unremarkable traditionalist re-stagings. Smaller companies that are not shackled to multi-year production schedules have been quicker on the draw to transport Mozart’s 1787 masterpiece to our own times, setting the action in Hollywood, a corporate office, or, in this case, the flashy world of fashion photography.
Boston Opera Collaborative’s ripped-from-the-headlines rendition opened Thursday night at the Benjamin Franklin Institute of Technology for a double-cast run of eight performances. Before the orchestra sounds a note, projections intersperse literal headlines with photographs of the recently disgraced, including Harvey Weinstein, Charlie Rose, R. Kelly, and, closer to home, James Levine. We hear a tuneful whistle from the back of the hall grow into the Champagne Aria as celebrity photographer Don Giovanni enters, singing amusedly to himself. He surveys the scene of his imminent gallery opening, where he will assault Donna Anna and murder her mother, the Commendatrice.
Co-directors Patricia-Maria Weinmann and Greg Smucker’s concept of the Don as photographer effectively channels the character’s fundamental emptiness as a Superfluous Man who reflects and refracts the vanities of others as he manipulates them. He seduces Zerlina by flattering her with his camera’s attention. Leporello’s infamous catalogue of his master’s conquests amounts to a massive album on his smartphone, which Donna Elvira swipes through to her own dismay and offers as proof to Zerlina of the Don’s darker side.
Unfortunately, the production does not rise to the full potential of its framing vision. An industrial-chic warehouse would have better served the ambience than a drab school auditorium with limited lighting options. BOC wrings what it can with projections and a few props, but the world it seeks to conjure does not materialize vividly enough to surmount a setting that perhaps better befits a storyline about prep school abuses.
The music might also have suffered from the space. Drastically truncated per the directors to two hours for a chamber orchestra consisting of a string quartet, piano, flute, bassoon, and horn, this Don Giovanni could have delivered an electrifyingly, viscerally immediate cri de cœur on how the personal is political. It still might, but shagginess and an almost listless hesitancy plagued the pit through the first two thirds of an under-rehearsed opening night. Only in the cemetery scene did the orchestra finally hit its stride, cohere, and begin to flourish, lean and lush as deadly nightshade, as both Mozart and arranger Mathieu d’Ordine’s efficient and effective score deserve. Until this dramatic improvement, the more charitable side of me, who had admired BOC’s Scarlet Ibis earlier this winter, considered blaming the orchestra’s anemic sound on the auditorium’s diffuse acoustics, and wondered if this might also have tripped up singers and instrumentalists struggling to stay together. (Positioning conductor Tianhui Ng to face away from stage action—even with the assistance of monitors—probably did not help, either.) If Ng can rally his forces sooner in subsequent performances, audiences might yet be in for a treat.
In this director’s cut edition, Leporello no longer laments at length in “Notte e giorno faticar.” Nor does Zerlina console Masetto with the sweetly suggestive “Vedrai carino.” The entire mistaken-identity scene, with its glorious sextet, is excised. Instead, BOC repurposes the Zerlina-Leporello duet from the 1788 Vienna edition (“Per queste tue manine”)—which has gained a currency among European early music and chamber ensembles, but remains rare elsewhere—for Zerlina’s brief, botched attempt to hold Don Giovanni accountable. These adaptations help propel the plot forward with mostly seamless ease, but streamlining alone does not make a stage compelling. A bit more direction in character development across the board could have greatly enhanced depth while advancing action. A more assertive baton could have assisted in both respects as well.
Of the opening night cast, Junhan Choi stood out as a Don Giovanni with expert command of how to clench his iron fist in a velvet glove, while Andrew Miller’s Leporello sounded muffled and seemed (appropriately?) beleaguered. The female leads gave generously voluminous performances, each marked with minor breath-support malfunction incidents. Jessica Jacobs’s fulminations as Donna Anna could strike all the fiercer with less vibrato. Isabelle Zeledón brought a hint of contralto plum-ripeness to Donna Elvira. Sarah Cooper was a winsome yet worldly-enough Zerlina, bound to John Bitsas’s unusually dapper Masetto with convincing chemistry. Francis Rogers proved himself a solidly dependable Don Ottavio. Shannon Grace’s Commendatrice intoned with authority.
BOC’s opening night Don Giovanni emerged like a rough sketch of what could yet become a great painting, a promising rehearsal for the show I ultimately wish to see. To call it half-baked is not to dismiss it, but to hope this savory mixture of ingredients may yet rise higher and heat to a satisfying crisp.
Boston Opera Collaborative’s Don Giovanni continues at the Benjamin Franklin Institute for Technology through April 6.
CJ Ru, Yale Ph.D. candidate in history, previously served tours of duty in the administrative offices of San Francisco Opera and Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra & Chorale.