Lyric Opera of Chicago:”Don Giovanni”

Chicago, Lyric Opera – 2014/2015 Season
Dramma Giocoso in two acts KV527. Libretto by Lorenzo Da Ponte.
Musica di Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Orchestra & Chorus Lyric OperaConductor
Conductor Sir Andrew Davis
Chorus Master Michael Black
Director Robert Falls
Set Designer Walt Spangler
Costume Designer Ana Kuzmanic
Lighting Designer Duane Schuler
Choreographer August Tye
New Production
Chicago, October 2, 2014        

Don Giovanni
, Lyric Opera of Chicago’s inaugural “calling card” production back in 1954, has boasted outstanding artists throughout the company’s 60-year history. In the title role alone, Lyric has presented Nicola Rossi-Lemeni, Eberhard Waechter, Nicolai Ghiaurov, Tito Gobbi, Richard Stilwell, Samuel Ramey, James Morris and Bryn Terfel. Mariusz Kwiecien is the company’s latest choice and he offers up a tour-de-force performance worthy of his illustrious predecessors.
In his program biography, Kwiecien contributed the following reflections on the character of Don Giovanni: “When I was 29, I played him as 29, full of energy, hope and life. I didn’t explore the darker side. Now I’m 41, I can feel his melancholy. He has bad days, when he feels his age and he’s asking himself where it’s all going. His problem is that life and the world have become too small for him. He finds himself in a corner, where nothing inspires him. He’s tried all sorts of women, maybe men too, travel, food and drink. But the only thing he hasn’t experimented with is death, so the whole thing with the Commendatore is a big excitement for him: he wants to look into the abyss.” This is a bold dramatic concept and Kwiecien mined its potential with shattering determination.
Kwiecien’s Don Giovanni views life as nothing more than Death’s waiting room. As he waits for the inevitable, Kwiecien devours women, wine and food with staggering hedonism. This portrayal invites a question: as best we can determine, why has Don Giovanni never murdered before? What is it about his development as a character that made this the moment ripe for such exploration? When confronted by the Commendatore in the opening scene, Kwiecien’s Don Giovanni at first walks away from his challenge but then turns and methodically decides he will take the step of killing another human being. Like Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray, this libertine defies conventional mortality in his quest to break every human taboo. Kwiecien studies the Commendatore’s final moments as if they were his own, a “look into the abyss” as Kwiecien puts it, fully aware that he has set into motion the damnation that awaits him. The opera, then, becomes a statement about the final day in the life of a Promethean character, a manic episode of frightening intensity. Kwiecien’s interpretation surfaces something revelatory about Mozart’s anti-hero and the human condition. Unfortunately, he is forced to compete with a kitchen-sink production that shoots itself in the foot by distracting attention from Kwiecien’s thesis rather than providing the focus necessary to amplify its power.
Robert Falls, the celebrated artistic director of Chicago’s Goodman Theatre, has updated the action of the opera to 1920s Spain, in the years following the Spanish Civil War. Don Giovanni is an evocation of various leading men of that era, including Rudolph Valentino and Douglas Fairbanks. Donna Elvira is an Amelia Earhart-style adventuress, making her first appearance in a flashy sidecar motorcycle. The peasant costumes of Masetto and Zerlina’s wedding party mix with scanty flapper gowns for the women of easy virtue at Giovanni’s party. It’s a picturesque staging with many arresting visuals (including Don Giovanni’s banquet table sinking into hell like the Titanic) but too clever for its own good and needing a stronger editorial hand.  Excesses abound and sometimes lend the proceedings an unnecessarily cartoonish dimension. Coloratura passages are usually motivated by the caress of a breast or fondling of the genitals. Sexual acts of all kinds are enacted in a stilted, “operatic” way that seldom reads as anything but artificial. Donna Elvira becomes a tiresome Latina stereotype, an ‘r’ rolling, foot-stomping amalgam of Carmen Miranda, Charo and Gloria from MODERN FAMILY. Even worse, Elvira gratuitously inflicts a superficial wound on Don Giovanni by shooting him with a pistol during the penultimate banquet scene. But the most horrid directorial choice is replacing the onstage ‘banda’ during Don Giovanni’s final supper with a period radio console, which “channels” the offstage players via amplification of gruesome tininess. However, Walt Spangler’s Escorial-inspired set design and Ana Kuzmanic’s stylish costumes cannot be faulted for authenticity or flair. In addition to his superbly realized dramatic portrayal, Kwiecien sings with suave finish and notable refinement. There was none of the forcing and bluster that have sometimes marred his recent performances. The production capitalizes on his pleasing physical attributes, including an open kimono in the final scene, which allowed full display of his chiseled body. Beyond surface appearances, Kwiecien exudes a swaggering assurance that proves irresistible.Kwiecien is surrounded by an attractive, mostly engaging cast. As Donna Anna, Marina Rebeka achieves the kind of vocal excellence in this role one associates with the young Joan Sutherland. Her gleaming, tireless soprano is equal to every aspect of this fiendishly difficult part. Like Sutherland, her consonants are not distinctive and this robbed the crucial recitatives of textual bite and variety. But the arias themselves are rendered in singing of astonishing perfection. As Donna Elvira, Ana María Martínez showed she is still capable of polished utterance in Mozart. The rigors of Butterfly and Rusalka have not robbed Martínez, an enormously versatile artist, of any of her vocal creaminess and flexibility. The soprano is a local favorite and her vulnerable portrayal transcends the limitations of the characterization imposed upon her, communicating directly from the heart.  As Zerlina, Andriana Chuchman sings sweetly but her characterization is curiously passive, closer to Mélisande than to Carmen. Kyle Ketelsen is a Leporello of enormous elegance, with his own magnetic presence; it was easy to imagine him impersonating his master at various points in the opera. Michael Sumuel is a more forceful Masetto than most, while Andrea Silvestrelli repeats his towering Commendatore, replete with spectral, bone-rattling voice. The weak link is Antonio Poli as Don Ottavio. He is a sympathetic performer with a sizable, appealing lyric instrument but he lacks the technical proficiency required to shine in this virtuoso role and sometimes ends up at sea in certain passages. Sir Andrew Davis conducts with authority but there are occasional lapses in matters of balance and ensemble. Oddly, it appears that Davis has allowed his stage director to make some questionable choices about the excision or inclusion of certain ‘secco’ recitatives. In summary, this was a DON GIOVANNI notable for Kwiecien’s fascinating protagonist and his thought provoking, deeply disturbing examination of Mozart’s darkest opera.Photo Todd Rosenberg