Two Baddies Take the Stage: It’s Scoundrel Time Again

The most startling thing about Saddam Hussein, when he was finally routed out of his rathole, was that he should emerge looking no more frightening than a bum who’d been dozing too long in Central Park. How astonishing to realize that this monster (as his former buddies in the American government had dubbed him) turned out to be a disheveled old man, badly in need of delousing. And, at the same time, how reassuring. Ever since Shakespeare complicated our notions of evil with Richard III and Iago, we have preferred villains with a distinctly human face-the more familiar, the more alarming. (Think of the terrifying power of Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter.) For dramatists, the secret to creating a great villain is ambiguity: To really work on our nervous systems, he (or she) must be at once alluring and repellent, awesome yet pathetic.

Mozart and his librettist, Lorenzo da Ponte, exploited the ambiguity of their greatest villain, the title character of Don Giovanni , to a degree unmatched in any other opera. In the American musical theater, the paragon in this vein is the title character of Sweeney Todd , Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s “demon barber of Fleet Street.” Both are currently much in evidence-the former at the Met, the latter at City Opera-and the fact that they are playing to capacity audiences shows that not even the Bush administration’s efforts to reduce the concept of evil to a political catch phrase has diminished the public’s appetite for “scoundrel time” (to borrow Lillian Hellman’s phrase).

Don Giovanni has been a fixture in the Met’s repertory for as long as I can remember, but no production has served it better than the new one, which is directed by the Swiss actress Marthe Keller. For years, the temptation has been to distort Don Giovanni ‘s slippery musings on aristocratic licentiousness into a universal fable about morality or a psychological tract about misogyny and addiction. Neither approach does justice to the complexity of this most troubling of operas, in which the force of the music alone can seduce us into empathic collusion with an unrepentant rapist and blasphemer. Ms. Keller has taken what seems to me the wisest possible course: to forego “interpretation” in favor of an uncluttered staging that banishes the memory of Franco Zeffirelli’s Mozart-punishing grandiosity and allows the characters to reveal their destabilized selves with naked clarity. (The one utterly unconflicted character is, of course, the destabilizing Don.)

Seville, in this production (the set and lighting designers are Michael Yeargan and Jean Kalman), consists solely of sun-drenched brick walls that thrust the action toward the orchestra. When necessary, we’re shown the glittering world of the Don’s dancing and banquet rooms. As with the Met’s brilliant cast of newcomers in last fall’s Le Nozze di Figaro , the singers possess, for the most part, voices whose youthful freshness and vitality lend their quest for vengeance terrific urgency. And with James Levine in the pit, the production has a conductor whose ability to turn on a dime from Mozartean apocalypse to Mozartean delicacy cannot be matched. This is the most exhilaratingly paced Don Giovanni I have ever heard. Indeed, all that it lacks is a great Don at the heart of it.

What is it about Thomas Hampson-widely regarded as one of the most charismatic baritones in the world-that makes him so uncharismatic in a part that he has sung countless times? Scrupulously musical, handsome in a big-faced, all-American way, he may be too comfortable with himself for a character whose aggressive self-assurance is a mask for mounting desperation. As many commentators have pointed out, Don Giovanni may have seduced more than 1,000 women in the past, but his attempts at seductions during the course of the opera are all thwarted. For a man who fears impotence more than death, this is a serious string of failures. And, on the night I attended the opera, Mr. Hampson went about his increasingly frantic business so blithely and smoothly that when he dashed the tableware to the floor during the banquet scene (its terror was considerably sapped by having the ghost of the Commendatore sing offstage), it seemed as though he was simply having a temper tantrum, rather than challenging the heavens with his defiance.

Altogether, this Don was something of a shadow compared to the other men onstage. René Pape’s marvelously detailed Leporello was so robust of voice and manner that I wondered why he didn’t dispatch his bullying master with a simple knife thrust. A splendid young Russian bass, Ildar Abdrazakov, made Masetto a bumpkin to be reckoned with. If Gregory Turay’s Don Ottavio couldn’t quite escape the role’s usual haplessness, his “Il mio tesoro” rang with sweet intensity. And for once, this Don was up against a formidable array of women. Hei-Kyung Hong’s Zerlina was a soubrette of not always pliant steel. Anja Harteros, who made such a stunning debut last fall as the Countess in Figaro , delivered a Donna Anna of sumptuous, hall-filling richness of sound, with just the right banked fire behind it. (On the night I heard her, she suffered an unsteadiness of pitch during “Non mi dir.”)

Christine Goerke’s Donna Elvira got, deservedly, one of the night’s biggest ovations. As the Don’s most persistent fury, this character often elicits a groan when she arrives out of nowhere to gnash her teeth or wring her hands at the seducer who abandoned her. But every time this bounteous American singer with her huge, gleaming soprano appeared onstage, my spirit soared. Here was not the usual screeching harridan, but a woman whose intense love, however misplaced, was not going to be denied-not even by her intense hatred. I don’t know how much Ms. Goerke owes to her collaboration with Ms. Keller (she has also worked brilliantly with another woman director, Francesca Zambello), but Elvira’s cry for justice was shattering, fully justifying-for once-the opera’s rather pat, closing Enlightenment hymn to “la libertà.”

I will leave a more thorough discussion of Sweeney Todd to my colleague John Heilpern (see page 19), but City Opera’s production stars in the title role (in one of two alternating casts) a young American who gives this remorselessly clever Sondheim confection a welcome jolt of tragic grandeur. I’m speaking of Mark Delavan, who has made a powerful impression in the company’s productions of Falstaff , The Flying Dutchman and Tosca . Apart from having an enormously roomy baritone on the order of the late Leonard Warren’s, Mr. Delavan has a burly physique that supports a head fit for Mt. Rushmore. He also possesses a quality that is almost extinct among male opera singers today-a sense of explosive danger that threatens at every moment to tear down the house. It also threatens to burst the seams of what, 25 years after Sweeney ‘s premiere on Broadway, struck me as a quasi-operatic effort that is essentially unsuitable for an opera house-at least a house with the variable acoustics of the New York State Theatre. (Without the surtitles, virtually all of Mr. Sondheim’s cleverness as a lyricist would have been lost to me in my seat downstairs, 10 rows from the stage; of Mr. Wheeler’s cleverness, I understood scarcely a word. Upstairs, I’m told, the words came through just fine.)

As studies of villainy go, Sweeny Todd is an expert romp with a frisson of the macabre-a cartoon. But hearing Mr. Delavan two nights after I’d heard Mr. Hampson’s Don Giovanni, I had a brainstorm: Wouldn’t it be great if the two baritones could switch roles for a night? In the real world of Mozart, Mr. Delavan would find a part worthy of his true size.

Two Baddies Take the Stage: It’s Scoundrel Time Again