SF Opera's Don Giovanni
June 05, 2022
* Notes *
Don Giovanni, the last installment of the Mozart-Da Ponte trilogy directed by Michael Cavanagh, opened yesterday evening at San Francisco Opera. It was a joy to hear Maestro Bertrand de Billy conduct this beautiful music and there was much lovely singing.
Post-apocalyptic future felt much like something out of Octavia E. Butler's Parable of the Sower, though that work is set in the a few years from now rather than the late 2080s for this production. It felt like violence could happen at any moment in the decrepit version of the 18th century manor house that was once so charming for Così fan tutte from the fall.
There were references to the previous two operas, especially in the costuming. One of the funny red gnome hats worn by Dorabella and Fiordiligi show up on a chorus member who is one of the survivors of this dystopian world. The startling physicality of the singers was evident right a way in the death of the Commendatore, who took a disturbingly long time to die. The extensive projections during the overture which included fire and shadows of people were distracting and a bit on the nose.
It is always interesting to see how directors deal with various elements of the plot in a new way. Instead of threatening his guests with a gun in the Act I finale, Don Giovanni puts on sunglasses and has Leperello blind them with the light of his portable projector. This device is used during "Madamina, il catalogo è questo" to show the list of names of Don Giovanni's conquests, and appears throughout the piece.
I really enjoyed "Don Giovanni! A cenar teco m'invitasti," when the Commendatore comes for dinner as a monumental statue (pictured, photograph by Cory Weaver). Usually this is my favorite bit of the opera anyway, because of those wild diminished sevenths and stentorian tones from the bass. Here the giant head that appeared was extremely absurd and surreal and I could not stop laughing, which was probably not the intended response, but certainly was one of the most memorable stagings of Don Giovanni I have ever seen. The descent to hell was particularly great, as the statue broke in half and both real fire and projections overtook our rakish anti-hero.
Instead of the usual mishmash of the two versions of the score, this time San Francisco Opera stuck to Vienna (1788) version. So it had "Dalla sua pace" but not "Il mio Tesoro" for Don Ottavio and "Restati qua... Per queste tue manine" in Act II, a duet for vengeful Zerlina and a rather hapless Leporello. The orchestra was neat and clear, the onstage and offstage musicians for the various bandas all played well. There were a few times when the music was a bit off-kilter, like for "Batti, batti o bel Masetto," as Mozart's music is unforgiving and exposes every flaw. However, conductor de Billy was more sedate than some others in recent memory, and it was nice to feel like the orchestra was secure and not in danger of flying off the rails. This is the first outing for our new chorus director John Keene, and it seemed fine, the chorus was cohesive and especially strong as unseen demons for the aforementioned inferno scene.
The cast is solid, lots of pretty singing and fine acting. As the Commendatore bass Soloman Howard might not have had the gravity of an older man, but his volume was good and his onstage death throes were convincing. Former Merolino bass-baritone Cody Quattlebaum was slightly wooden as Masetto, but perhaps that works for the role. I do remember him being charming in Walton's The Bear in 2017, but obviously it is very different music. Soprano Christina Gansch sang Zerlina with warmth, particularly lovely in her duet "Là ci darem la mano" and showed a more sadistic side in the duet "Per queste tue manine." I still remember Luca Pisaroni as Masetto back in 2007 because I saw 6 or 7 of the performances, but he is an amiable Leporello and sounded robust. He was excellent at physical humor, and was very funny when he attempted to impersonate his master at the beginning of Act II.
Tenor Amitai Pati cuts a dashing figure as Don Ottavio, though he is a touch underpowered. His "Dalla sua pace" had a longing in it that was lovely. I liked soprano Nicole Car's Donna Elvira, her penetrating, taut sound is just shy of shrill and was perfect contrast to soprano Adela Zaharia's Donna Anna (pictured, photograph by Cory Weaver). These three singers blended well together, and I loved their trio of Act I ("Protegga il giusto cielo"). Zaharia definitely was the standout of the evening. Her voice is incandescent, the low notes have richness and the high notes very shiny and secure. Her Act II aria "Non mi dir" was revelatory, one of the most beautiful moments of the whole opera. Baritone Etienne Dupuis was no slouch either as Don Giovanni, he is an excellent actor and has a nice, sweet voice that is bright enough to cut through the orchestra. I was impressed by his ability to channel the lankiness of Pisaroni's Leporello though their frames are rather different. He was also brutal with Donna Elvira (who in fact is played by his real life spouse), especially when he threw a dish of fish at her in Act II. Dupuis did well with "Fin ch'han dal vino calda la testa," light and sparkly and his "Deh, vieni alla finestra" was also very pretty.
The couple in front of us in Row S Seats 2 and 4 were chatty, but the maskless person next to them in Seat 6 was even louder, he had the sniffles and his breathing was so distinct and in my ear I thought it might be my date that was snarfling so much. The woman in Seat 4 couldn't take it and switched to Row R Seat 2 before Donna Elvira's entrance.
This was good in that her date (whose mask was carefully tucked under his chin) had to lean forward to talk to her, and thus the sound of their voices was further away from me. When I gigglingly suggested to my companion that it was she that had caused all that racket, she was offended and incensed. She rolled up her opera program and hit me as she proclaimed "Batti! Batti!"
None of the three returned to their seats after intermission. I did not notice any electronic noise during the performance but a lot of audience members dropped things.