Mozart’s Don Giovanni is believed by many to be his greatest opera, yet it remains among his most challenging to stage. Last week, the Metropolitan Opera revealed its latest iteration of the opera—the fourth in thirty-three years—by provocative Belgian director Ivo van Hove.
Van Hove’s introduction to the Met comes more than twenty-five years after he burst onto New York’s Off-Off-Broadway scene at New York Theater Workshop. For more than a decade, he produced radically reimagined productions of O’Neill, Williams, Ibsen, Molière and Hellman. Eventually, his avant-garde Dutch theater company began regular visits to the Brooklyn Academy of Music, after which he arrived on Broadway, where he won a Tony in 2015.
“I don’t know what ‘being faithful to a text’ means,” the minimalist expressionist said in a 2016 interview, but little in van Hove’s restless and dangerous contemporary update will offend leery traditionalists. A splendid cast led by Nathalie Stutzmann in an impressive Met debut makes Don Giovanni a must-see, even if the director’s ideas don’t always work.
Don Juan, the legendary Spanish seducer, has fascinated some of the world’s greatest artists since he appeared in Tirso de Molina’s early 17th-century play El burlador de Sevilla. Molière drafted his own play before Mozart and librettist Lorenzo da Ponte premiered their version in 1787. And Byron, Pushkin and Shaw, among others, have tackled Don Juan and his hellish comeuppance initiated by a statue at his final supper.
Van Hove can’t make up his mind about this supernatural intervention in a production set in his partner Jan Versweyveld’s stark maze-like de Chirico streetscape. Giovanni and his servant Leporello traditionally encounter the immobile form of the Commendatore (whom Giovanni murders in the opening scene) late in the opera. At the Met, a ghostly Alexander Tsymbalyuk wanders around in a bloody shirt challenged by Giovanni despite being visible only to Leporello. However, Giovanni does see the Commendatore when he arrives at the chaotic fatal banquet, which culminated on Friday night in a confusing damnation punctuated by Christopher Ash’s roiling projections.
Perhaps the director’s post-modern sensibilities don’t care to follow 18th-century conventions like frequent disguises? Van Hove ignores several more instances in which characters do not “see” others. Since Donna Anna encounters Giovanni in bright light during the first scene, what can one make of her surprise at realizing he was her father’s murderer? When Giovanni and Leporello briefly exchange identities, Peter Mattei and Adam Plachetka make little attempt to disguise themselves, so the latter’s ‘reveal’ during the great sextet comes off as ridiculous.
But as van Hove has chosen to eschew realism, what is he offering instead?
While his Don Giovanni lacks a convincing unified concept, van Hove’s personenregie does add fascinating nuance to characters we think we know well. In particular, he unearths surprising details about the opera’s women. His Anna is not a chilly grande dame but hotly passionate—she is held back more than once from attacking Leporello. Donna Elvira could be a pathetic virago, but under van Hove’s guidance, Ana Maria Martinez creates an amusing and wrongheaded yet immensely sympathetic figure. And his Zerlina is the most vividly temperamental and independent I’ve ever seen.
Federica Lombardi and Ying Fang have recently become a powerhouse Met Mozart team. Last year, they co-starred to wide acclaim in Le Nozze di Figaro and Idomeneo, and they are near ideal as Don Giovanni’s Anna and Zerlina. Lombardi’s richly full soprano boldly glows as it rises to blazing high notes when she demands vengeance, yet she melts sweetly as she reassures the hapless Ottavio.
Fang avoids soubrette brittleness and brings a radiantly appealing warmth to her sly manipulations of the beleaguered Masetto.
Though Martinez’s high notes have a tendency to squall early on, she offers some exquisite soft singing. If the demanding “Mi tradi” pushes her to her limit, it nonetheless stands as a touchingly intimate glimpse into Elvira’s rocky romantic life. Ben Bliss’s unusually proactive Ottavio cares about Anna, who clearly reciprocates his strong feelings. His silken pair of arias are graced with imaginative ornamentation; however, it’s frustrating that similar ornaments and appoggiaturas are rarely adopted by the rest of the cast.
The lowest voices are variously successful, with Tsymbalyuk’s sepulchral bass thundering mightily as the Commendatore—truly the voice of Judgment Day. Alfred Walker brings a welcome bite to Masetto, but his baritone often fades in ensembles. A veteran of many Met Mozart performances since his 2015 debut as Masetto, Plachetka eagerly embraces the comic business van Hove devised for Leporello, but his blunt bass becomes increasingly grating, so his usually surefire catalog aria becomes a trial rather than a delight.
Solving the enigma of Giovanni and his fate is always the director’s biggest challenge, and van Hove’s unfocused direction leaves Mattei stranded. At 57, the Swedish singer sounds amazingly young and fresh. Mozart’s music suits his buttery baritone to perfection, and his irresistibly seductive “Là ci darem” and ravishingly hypnotic serenade could hardly have been better.
Yet Giovanni’s actions from scene to scene feel increasingly random, as if van Hove couldn’t decide who his protagonist was. Is he a murderous monster or a seductive sex addict? Appearing uncomfortable at times, Mattei’s voice alone isn’t enough. I’ll be interested to see how other singers manage when the production is revived.
But while van Hove’s direction sometimes left me puzzled, Stutzmann’s striking command of the musical side reveals an exciting new opera maestro. Long one of the world’s leading contraltos, Stutzmann only lately turned to conducting. From the first thundering chord of the overture, her orchestra responds with exceptional precision and transparency—particularly the winds.
While her alert reading moves swiftly from aria to recitative and back again, she doesn’t shy away from relishing expansive movements like the sublime masked trio or Elvira’s wounded recitative before “Mi tradi.” Her collaboration with her singers in the frequent ensembles displays a rare unanimity.
Stutzmann does double Mozart duty this month, also conducting the Met’s new Die Zauberflòte opening on May 19, and her sterling work with Don Giovanni suggests that it, too, may be very special.
Don Giovanni continues at the Metropolitan Opera through June 2.