Don’ Touch Ma’ Giovanni!

Opera Review: Don Giovanni at the New York City Opera

Reviews should not be mere synopsis, nor should they be history lessons. Those who read my criticisms might be familiar with this absence of plot summation and a lack of enumerating the historical highlights of a work or artist, which is normally rendered in order to substantiate merit. I have neither the time nor the age to execute either form with any sincerity. I prefer to engage in a more immediate and mercurial interplay between all the facets of a given work of art (whether performance, object, or media), allowing critical observations to bounce between the present, the past, the details, the broad gestures, the performers and the directors. And above all, to attempt to understand why this work is being presented here and now as it appears before us. That being said, I might be doing a little of both with this piece, as I feel it calls for it in order to explain why the New York City Opera’s current presentation of Don Giovanni is a wonderfully straight-forward production with some power-house singing, some great comedy, and a few wacky costumes.

Normally, I am a fan of updating operas, or rather, updating any theatrical work to be set in present times (as often happens with Shakespear). I like much less what I find to be stereotypical representations of “period,” which often distance us from the themes a given work is representing. While this production of Don Giovani (steered by uber-director Hal Prince with sets and costumes by Rolf Langenfass) nods to trappings of 18th century Seville, it’s more fanciful, even fairytale-like in its renderings; mystical, towering trees frame the set throughout the opera, and the columns that create the grotto at the opening of the opera shift, separate and combine in other formations, reinventing the stage from one scene to the next. There is nothing avant-garde about this production, which is its charm, and probably what allows the work to come through with robust humor, rather than other productions that might try to lean a little too heavy on the seria button.

Afterall, it would be difficult for Mozart and Da Ponte’s Don Giovanni to read seriously today. Furthermore, it’s questionable just how seriously we would have been asked to take it during Mozart’s time. The ingenious libretto is wryly punctured with all sorts of asides, mainly coming from Don Juan’s right-hand-man, the comic Leporello (played superbly by Daniel Mobbs in this production). The fact that Mozart wrote the ensemble finale (where Giovanni’s victims celebrate and basically sing “that’s what you get” after the swindler of hearts makes the plunge into eternal damnation (campily enough through an extravagantly undisguised trap-door in the stage)) was part of the original vision of the opera (though mostly omitted in the 18th and 91th centuries) suggests that the creators no more intended us to take Giovanni’s fateful incineration any more seriously than we have taken any other part of the opera. At any rate, an audience today would simply be rendered useless if it were expected to really experience Don Giovanni as some kind of moral warning against promiscuity, and surprisingly so, given the past twenty years’ struggle to digest AIDS as punishment for sexual libertinism.

(Daniel Borrowski as Commendatore and Aaron St. Clair Nicholson as Don Giovanni; Photo by Carol Rosegg)

But Giovanni’s indictment seems less of the flesh (venal and mortal) and more of the ego. He receives his final punishment after he refuses to repent for his transgressions. You could compare his characterization here to Madonna today, whose relentless “no regrets” chanting over the past three decades has made her a prime suspect for this kind of moral comeuppance (at least, in the minds of her detractors).

The cast here does a lot to help situate the opera in the buffa area. In companion with Mobbs’ slapstick Leporello, Aaron St. Clair Nicholson’s Don Giovanni is an earthy, swaggering, although, of course, charming menace.

Julianna Di Giacomo’s vocally robust Donna Elvira is a not-to-be-thwarted cock-blocker to Don Giovanni’s cock-strutting; herself caught in the fray of Giovanni’s tricks, renouncing and loving him in a cycle of obsession that will only end when the object of her fixation is annihilated; luckily she gets hers.

JiYoung Lee’s Zerlina is a tartish simpleton who uses her whiles to keep her man (Masetto, played by Matthew Burns) in tow while flirting with the disaster that awaits her in the hands of Giovanni. Her coquettish posturing won me over in the end, even though her voice had occasional difficulty maintaining a consistent tone, particularly during more wordy passages.

Donna Anna, perhaps the most seriously rendered character, was marvelously wrought by Mardi Byers’ massive yet virtuosically agile voice. But even Dona Anna’s mourning is turned to humor’s favor when it continues to intervene with the consummation of her love with Don Ottavio, played not effortlessly but steadily by (OC home-boy) Bruce Sledge.

You would also be missing out on the evening if you hadn’t noticed the spry corniness of David Wroe’s conducting! His shoulders bounced happily with the music, peppering his movements with jazz-hands here and there. And at one moment he actually did the peek-a-boo move, you know, where you surprise someone with your face popping out from between your hands. I can only imagine what that must have looked like to the violin section. And if you’re thinking to yourself, why is this writer commenting on how the conductor appears? Well, because that is what the experience of opera is–or rather–can be. It can be about your entire experience in the theater. That’s what can make an evening at the opera fantastic, bordering on camp. It’s great fun to see a conductor toss himself into all kinds of contortions in a effort to really get into a Mozart score. Or to mark how the ball costumes at the end of the first act were hideously sequined and cut six inches off the ground to reveal Donna Anna and Elvira’s precious ankles, or how the britches they chose for Matthew Burns’ doltish Masetto only accentuated his knock-kneed awkwardness on the stage.

All I’m trying to say is, the point of going to the opera is not always to sit in appreciation of a masterpiece.

The fact that Don Giovanni is no doubt a masterpiece should not prevent us from regarding it with casual sensibilities. Now, I am not merely making a case for camp. More than that, I’m trying to expand the scope with which we regard the experience of opera. But if the awesomely beadazzled interior of the State Theater (that looks like it was designed by Elizabeth Taylor during her White Diamonds phase) fits: by all means…

“Don Giovanni” will be presented again tomorrow, September 30, October 6 & 12.

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