Even the most frequently performed operas aren’t performed very frequently—at least not in different versions in a single city. So it is remarkable that there have been no fewer than three major new productions of Mozart’s Don Giovanni in New York in the past two years.
In November 2009 Christopher Alden directed a bold, dark, ambiguously modern Giovanni for New York City Opera. During Lincoln Center’s Mostly Mozart Festival this past August, Ivan Fischer both directed and conducted a bracing, stylized take on the opera featuring a ferocious performance from his Budapest Festival Orchestra.
Now the Metropolitan Opera has joined in, with the latest chapter in its recently troubled history with the work. A flawed 1990 Giovanni was replaced by a flawed 2004 Giovanni, and on Thursday that, in turn, was replaced by a new production by Michael Grandage, the artistic director of London’s Donmar Warehouse.
Mr. Grandage only began working in opera last year and the move came with high expectations, since his work on plays like John Logan’s Rothko-themed Red has been acclaimed for its stylishness and intelligence. But those two qualities are missing from his Met Giovanni, which is disastrously dull, a nonevent. Faced with Mozart’s complex masterpiece, which moves with rapid-fire speed from farce to horror to elegy and back again, Mr. Grandage seems stumped.
The result is a traditional production without the traditions that have made this opera so beloved: energy, detail, and honest feeling. Things were almost certainly thrown off-balance by the last-minute substitution of Peter Mattei for Mariusz Kwiecien, who underwent back surgery, in the title role. But Mr. Mattei performs ably, and the production’s problems, seen at the second performance on Monday, are too pervasive to be explained away by even a major cast change.
Christopher Oram’s pseudo-functional set is a series of moving buildings fronted by neat rows of Juliet balconies. This Advent calendar look is a favorite at the Met in recent years—the opera blog Likely Impossibilities published a compendium of the practice on Friday—and in this case it’s finished in the artfully weathered, faded-paint aesthetic of a Pottery Barn armoire. The dimensions of the Met are daunting, and a Hollywood Squares approach is one way to fill that enormous vertical expanse. But Mr. Grandage has taken few opportunities to really use the space, and the backdrop too often ends up looming distractingly over the action.
The performers are frequently forced to a narrow strip at the front of the stage, where they tend to sing in a row, looking as if they’re just going through the motions. Though the soloists are all experienced in their roles, they and the chorus seem to know in only the broadest terms what they are doing or what feeling they are meant to be conveying at any moment This lends the whole evening a deadening sense of detachment. The poignant, intimate moments between Zerlina and Masetto might, for their frigid emotional temperature, have been sung here by two strangers. When Donna Anna finally realizes it was Don Giovanni who attempted to rape her and then killed her father, the strong if sometimes shrill soprano Marina Rebeka seemed peeved rather than enraged.
Mr. Grandage has spoken in interviews about the importance to the opera of class dynamics—after all, the main engine of the plot is the uncomfortable, unexpected interactions between aristocrats, servants, and peasants. But the production ends up ignoring class almost entirely. Leporello (the charismatic, compulsively watchable Luca Pisaroni) mounts Donna Elvira (a sedate, underpowered Barbara Frittoli) during his Catalogue Aria, but she doesn’t seem even mildly miffed that a servant is taking such a liberty. The guests at Zerlina and Masetto’s wedding party don’t seem to find it odd or intimidating that a nobleman has suddenly entered their midst; conversely, they later act right at home in Don Giovanni’s villa, perhaps because it’s decorated and lit like a cheap bordello. It is his class that allows Giovanni to steal Zerlina with impunity, in broad daylight; if that isn’t made clear, and it isn’t here, the whole thing seems absurd.
It’s this lack of texture that keeps the production from ever achieving a sense of mood. There is a passing feeling of foreboding in the cemetery scene, which opens with shadowy hooded figures—copies of the Commendatore’s statue—in each of the Advent calendar slots, silhouetted against a yellowed gray sky. But the tension is broken by the embarrassing animatronic statue and its over-amplified voice, and when the same hooded figures are brought back as Giovanni is being pulled down (amidst risible shooting flames) into hell, the effect is silly rather than striking.
In an interview in the Met’s season book, the company’s general manager, Peter Gelb, praises the way Mr. Grandage directs with “a cool and elegant aplomb that stays focused on the storytelling. He appreciates that the staging of a classic play has to please both knowledgeable and uninitiated audience members.”
This is code for the Met’s fear that conceptual or experimental productions of the standard repertory will alienate “uninitiated” opera-goers. Forget the blazing critical and popular success of Willy Decker’s stark, contemporary La Traviata last season: clearly, in Mr. Gelb’s mind, audiences will run from a Giovanni (or Le Nozze di Figaro or Cosi fan tutte) that doesn’t appear to have been set in a Restoration Hardware store, with bland period costumes and a blissful ignorance of the aesthetic, political, and moral issues that mattered to Mozart and his librettist, Lorenzo Da Ponte.
Like Robert Lepage’s first two installments at the Met of Wagner’s Ring cycle, the new Giovanni is desperate to avoid anything that could possibly be construed as ideology or updating or directorial intervention. In a recent interview Mr. Grandage said that high-concept productions tend to give only the superficial appearance of having reconsidered a piece, while his own, more traditional methods yield something more substantive.
“I think you can reinvestigate it from the inside, in a way that is about character,” he said.
But his production, like Mr. Lepage’s, has ended up lacking precisely the qualities you’d expect and hope would come through in such a “straightforward” take on the opera: characters, emotions, plot, basic interest. At one especially lethargic moment during the first act on Monday, the man on one side of me started scrolling through emails on his BlackBerry; on my other side, a man was dozing. Is this the vividly theatrical operatic experience that Mr. Gelb has promised us?
In the Met’s publicity, Mr. Grandage’s name is invariably accompanied by the phrase “Tony Award winner” (he got his trophy for Red). And you sense that the ability to tack on those words played no small part in Mr. Gelb’s decision to hire his similarly award-winning colleagues, Julie Taymor, Mary Zimmerman, Bartlett Sher, and Des McAnuff, whose production of Gounod’s Faust comes to the Met next month.
The idea is that these directors will bring two things along with them: a vibrancy perceived to be present in the theater world but lacking in opera, and a savvy audience that loved, say, Red but has steered clear of the Met.
In theory, everyone wins; in practice, we all lose. Ms. Taymor, Ms. Zimmerman, Mr. Sher and now Mr. Grandage have shown that the credentials that make good marketing copy don’t necessarily make good opera. His new Don Giovanni is worse than bad: it’s nothing.
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