At La Scala, in Milan, they are doing Don Giovanni, one of the “Da Ponte operas,” which is to say, one of the three Mozart operas for which Lorenzo Da Ponte wrote the libretto. The production is in the hands of Robert Carsen, the Canadian director.
It is a strange production, and an appealing one, and a thought-provoking one. The setting is today, evidently, as characters take selfies and roll rollies.
Carsen holds up a mirror to the audience, literally. At different points, the stage has an enormous mirror, in which audience members can see themselves. “This story is about you,” the director seems to be saying.
During a stretch of the opera, Don Giovanni appears to be an attendee at La Scala, watching the drama unfold like everyone else.
At the end, the Commendatore runs a sword through Giovanni—as Giovanni ran a sword through him—and we presume the scoundrel dead. But, before the curtain falls, he comes back and gets the last laugh, literally. The other characters go down to hell—or so it seems.
Is this Don Giovanni? Is it one of those “subversions” that directors love?
In this production, as in so many modern productions, Donna Anna has the hots for Don Giovanni. She likes it, frankly. If she is a victim, she is an obviously willing one. This is a convention that I hope will pass someday.
I have my beefs with Carsen, as you can tell, but this Don Giovanni is consistently interesting to look at. Also, its “imaginative” touches do not detract from Mozart and Da Ponte. I would see the production again, if I could (and maybe understand more of it?).
Some years ago, in an interview, Renée Fleming told me that she had become basically a “one-director singer”: a Carsen singer. I understand the admiration, whether I share it entirely or not.
Don Giovanni’s cast is large, consisting of eight singers, all of whom have a lot to sing. In this opera, Mozart is an equal-opportunity composer. There is always a weak link in a Giovanni cast—or two or four. But in the Scala cast, last Friday night, there was not a one. Swear.
Important as the cast is, no one is as important as the conductor, the straw that stirs the drink, the determiner of the overall quality of the evening. On this occasion, it was Paavo Järvi, and he was superb. He was brisk but not overly peppy. He gave the music definition, but was not too severe in it. Everything had a sense of “just-rightness.”
That’s a phrase I have often applied to James Levine, particularly in Mozart: the music has a sense of just-rightness, or inarguability. “It can’t be any other way.” Everything is right in tempo, phrasing, and so on.
Frankly, you could forget the conducting on Friday night, because there was nothing eccentric or wrong about it. Paavo Järvi is a natural and intelligent Mozartean.
In the title role was Thomas Hampson, the American baritone, and one of the notable Giovannis of this age. He made his Scala debut this season, believe it or not: he had been pretty much everywhere else over the years.
I am writing a feature piece on Hampson, and one should not review and “feature” at the same time. But suffice it to say that this was a Hampson Don Giovanni: smooth, smart, deft, and ever interesting. To be Giovanni, you must seduce. Thomas Hampson has no problem.
He enjoyed excellent rapport with his Leporello, who was his son-in-law, Luca Pisaroni, the Italian bass-baritone—who is one of the outstanding Leporellos of this day. Pisaroni did not disappoint: he was rich-voiced, clean, and everything else he reliably is. The Italian language is a pleasure out of his mouth—especially in patter, which Don Giovanni is full of. And there are few people in opera as likable as Pisaroni.
I suppose there have been dislikable Leporellos since the debut of this opera in 1787 (two years before the Constitution!). But that character is hard to dislike, especially when portrayed by Pisaroni.
Two years ago, Pisaroni told me something darn interesting in an interview. Early in his career, he was auditioning for Nikolaus Harnoncourt, the conductor. He was singing Leporello’s Catalogue Aria, and he was singing it fairly straight.
Harnoncourt quickly stopped him and said, “More rubato” (meaning more license with time, more freedom of interpretation). “Like Frank Sinatra.”
I loved that.
La Scala’s Elvira was Anett Fritsch, the German soprano. Reviewing her in this role in 2014, I wrote, “She could not only slink around in her lingerie, she could sing superbly.” That was the story on Friday night as well. In my experience, Elviras often struggle. They don’t so much sing “In quali eccessi,” for example, as get through it. Fritsch has shown unusual freedom and assurance in this role.
And Donna Anna? She was another German soprano, Hanna-Elisabeth Müller, who appeared at the Metropolitan Opera recently as Marzelline, in Beethoven’s Fidelio. Her Anna was wonderfully lyrical, as the singer played with the notes like taffy. She exhibited pliancy in singing. The aria “Non mi dir” was a lovely, winding song.
Don Ottavio was sung by a Swiss tenor, Bernard Richter. Google tells me that I reviewed him in 2012 in another Mozart role: Tamino (The Magic Flute). I said that Richter was “fresh-voiced,” “sure-footed,” and “Polenzani-like.” So it was on Friday night.
And I have to hand it to Richter, or Maestro Järvi, or both: “Dalla sua pace,” one of Ottavio’s arias, was blessedly not too slow. If I had a nickel for every too-slow “Dalla sua pace,” I could almost settle the U.S. debt.
Zerlina ought to be adorable, in addition to other things, and Giulia Semenzato, an Italian soprano, really was. Her Masetto was Mattia Olivieri, an Italian baritone. The role of Masetto can be thankless, but this young man truly pulled it off. He demonstrated the right resentment, resignation, and explosiveness.
Semenzato and Olivieri looked like Zerlina and Masetto—and sang like them and acted like them.
Well, we have one singer left, and he is Tomasz Konieczny, our Commendatore. I’ll tell you what I appreciated most about this bass-baritone (from Poland): he gave me enough sound, particularly in the final scenes. Without enough sound, the Commendatore is a letdown.
My job is to find fault, and I’m afraid it comes naturally, at least in the field of music. And you can always find a fault—forty faults—in a Don Giovanni, with all its moving parts. But this Giovanni was first-rate. It had the effect of making me appreciate the opera anew. It was both playful and dark, making it the dramma giocoso that Mozart and Da Ponte intended.