Bad Romance: Michael Grandage’s Nonevent Don Giovanni Proves That Good Marketing Copy Doesn’t Make Good Opera

Audience members dozed, checked Blackberries

"Don Giovanni." (Courtesy Metropolitan Opera)

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.

Bad Romance: Michael Grandage’s Nonevent Don Giovanni Proves That Good Marketing Copy Doesn’t Make Good Opera