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Review: One dull 'Don Giovanni' replaces another

It has been more than a half-century since the Metropolitan Opera debuted a successful staging of Mozart's "Don Giovanni." The wait continues.
/ Source: The Associated Press

It has been more than a half-century since the Metropolitan Opera debuted a successful staging of Mozart's "Don Giovanni." The wait continues.

A disappointing, dull production by Michael Grandage opened Thursday night, replacing an equally sluggish staging by Marthe Keller that premiered in 2004. Keller's followed a pillar-filled Franco Zeffirelli production from 1990 that overwhelmed the cast.

While there was much fine singing Thursday night and a pulsating performance in the pit from new Met principal conductor Fabio Luisi, the evening was hobbled by Grandage's unfocused direction and Christopher Oram's set, which on first view already appears to be decrepit and ripe for replacement. It's not too soon for the Met to say it needs another new "Don Giovanni."

Grandage won a Tony Award for "Red" and directed a thrilling "King Lear" for London's Donmar Warehouse that appeared at the Brooklyn Academy of Music this year. But here he misfires, in only his third opera after "Billy Budd" at Glyndebourne and "Madama Butterfly" in Houston.

He opens the action in what appears to be a tenement housing the Commendatore's family. With peeling paint and faded greens, pinks and browns in a "Hollywood Squares" array of balcony doors, the single set breaks apart and opens to form Don Giovanni's palace, with only the addition of chandeliers and candelabra. That nobility would live in such a rat trap is laughable.

Worse, for much of the night he confines the action to a small area in front of the ugly backdrop, and Oram's dull-toned period costumes blend into the set. The change of the Commendatore from a dark-faced statue to a white-faced ghostlike character is inexplicable. The best moment is when flames burst up from the stage and Don Giovanni sinks to hell.

Two key people were missing, changing the original plans. Met music director James Levine withdrew last month following a fall that required another back operation, and Mariusz Kwiecien, who was to sing the title role, injured his back during Monday's dress rehearsal and had surgery to repair a herniated disk.

Levine will be sidelined until at least January, leading to the enhanced role for Luisi, and Kwiecien was replaced in the first three performances by Peter Mattei.

Mattei, who will sing this role on the opening night of La Scala's season in December, is tall and dashing in manner and elegant and powerful in voice. But there was little sense of why Donna Elvira and Zerlina were attracted to him. During "La ci darem la mano," Giovanni starts the duet seated at a picnic table, while the peasant girl Zerlina is at the front of the stage, back to him, facing the audience. Giovanni moves to her, and she reaches out a hand as he approaches, giving in, with there seeming to be little motivation.

Given the lack of rehearsal time for Mattei, the absence of definition for Giovanni is understandable. But the absence of spark extended through much of the performance and to all the characters.

Tenor Ramon Vargas, known for heavier roles in a Met career that began 19 years ago, provided the highlights with an outstanding Don Ottavio, Donna Anna's fiance. His "Il mio tesoro," with nuanced intonation, outstanding breath control and lovely legato, had unusual power and beauty, and it earned him the biggest applause.

Soprano Mojca Erdmann made her Met debut as a sweet-toned Zerlina, at times managing to break through the general tedium on stage. She was paired with Joshua Bloom, who sang earnestly as her new husband Masetto.

Soprano Marina Rebeka also made her Met debut, as Donna Anna, and sang with bright tone. Barbara Frittoli had some nice ornamentation as Donna Elvira.

Luca Pisaroni gave another strong performance as Leporello, Don Giovanni's servant. As he sang an invigorating Catalogue aria, visions of the Don's conquests appeared on the balconies. Stefan Kocan was the Commendatore, with distracting overamplification used when the statue appeared in the cemetery scene.

Appointed the Met's principal guest conductor in April 2010, Luisi was given his expanded position on Sept. 6, after Levine fell while in Vermont recuperating from back surgery and damaged one of his vertebrae. Conducting "Don Giovanni" for the first time and playing the recitatives from the harpsichord in the manner of Mozart's era, Luisi led a brisk and musically satisfying performance that included many fine details.

Keller's production was seen at the Met in just 36 performances over three seasons, an unusually brief appearance for a core opera. Herbert Graf's 1957 staging at the old Met, with sets by Eugene Berman, lasted until 1984. Since then, the Met has struggled with one of Mozart's masterpieces.

The Oct. 29 matinee will be televised live to movie theaters around the world, and perhaps the production will be more effective with cameras limiting the background and focusing the viewer. At the Met, there are 16 more performances through March 17, with various conductors and singers.