Lorenzo da Ponte, Don Giovanni's librettist, labeled the opera a "dramma
giocoso," referring to its balance—novel for its time—of comic and serious elements. But there's much less giocoso than drama, visually, in Seattle Opera's new production of the Mozart classic, which describes the picaresque adventures of Don Giovanni and his eventual comeuppance for having wronged many people. The overture's slow, roiling introduction accompanies a stylized vision of Hell, with bursting flames (fast becoming a SO clich鬠as trenchcoats were a couple of seasons ago) and writhing demons in rubbery gargoyle costumes. They're continually popping up in later scenes (foreshadowing the title character's fiery end) and the set, all gloomy gray stone walls and arches, casts a pall even over the slapstick.
Opera House, January 16
Consequently, bass Kevin Langan's comic talent was all the more welcome in his portrayal of Giovanni's servant Leporello. His clownish energy kept the two long acts rolling forward. Two other compelling performances also came as pleasant dramatic surprises: Donna Elvira, a woman wronged by sex addict Giovanni but unable to let him go, is the opera's complex mezzo carഴere, the role that bridges the gap between the comic and serious characters. She often comes across as a bit of a scold, but Christine Goerke played her as a woman whose unconditional love is touching, rather than one whose tenacity is amusing. Her vocal fireworks in the aria Mi tradi were a thrill to boot. And Kurt Streit made Don Ottavio a virile match for Giovanni, unleashing a dashingly elegant tenor in his resolve to avenge the murder of his fianc饠Donna Anna's father. Streit, Goerke, and Sally Wolf (Anna) came together for the evening's vocal climax, the brief but ravishing wind-accompanied prayer in the Act I finale. Gabor Andrasy was properly imposing as Anna's father, the Commendatore; Chester Patton ,properly rube-ish as the peasant Masetto, cuckolded by Giovanni; and Laura Polverelli, charming and sympathetic as his seduced fianc饠Zerlina.
Jason Howard, as Giovanni, ultimately left me wondering what all the fuss was about. Giovanni's mistreatment of the other characters is what motivates them, and unless the baritone in the role gives off more heat and light than anyone else, he can't function as the sun around which they revolve. (In this production, it was Loprello who seemed to be in the eye of the storm.)
But in at least one spot Howard was decidedly hampered by the staging. Anxious to get down to the business of wooing Zerlina, he orders Leporello to arrange a party, calling for wine, women, and dancing; this Champagne Aria is the ultimate outpouring of Mozartean joie de vivre. But behind the scrim, as Howard sang, those demons lurked again. Now it makes sense that this evidence of Giovanni's profligacy should be overshadowed by the avenging demons. Musically it makes sense too, with chromatic scales in the aria that are Mozart's preferred indicator of doom. Theatrically, it made no sense at all—it was thoroughly distracting, and wasted one of Giovanni's rare opportunities to cast his magnetic spell (surprisingly, Mozart doesn't give his title character all that many solo turns). This scene turned into a classic example of how a directorial concept, however imaginative, can get in the way of straightforward storytelling.