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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Thursday, January 31, 2019

Opera Review: The Redemption of the Dissolute

The Met finally gets Don Giovanni right.
by Paul J. Pelkonen

In the classic Bill Murray comedy Groundhog Day, a caddish weatherman is trapped in a small Pennsylvania town in midwinter. He is forced to relive the same events over and over until (as the trailer says) "he finally gets it right." A similar redemption came last night for the Metropolitan Opera's first Don Giovanni this season, presented in a 2012 staging by  Michael Grandage. This was the fifty-first performance of this well-worn show. Last night, it finally roared to comic life. The spark: four strong debuts, three on stage and one in the orchestra pit.

German conductor Cornelius Meister led a muscular and large-scale account of the overture, one that paid attention to detail and simultaneously made the right grand gestures, anticipating the protagonist's fiery end. He managed to keep the comedy bubbling without losing any of the detail of the music. As the second act wound toward its fiery close, a sense of dread crept into the proceedings, one which paid off when the conductor triggered those famous D minor chords and an icy chill crept into the theater.

The Spanish libertine and his hapless sidekick Leporello were played here (respectfully) by Met veterans Luca Pisaroni and Ildar Abdrazakov. Both men have played both parts in this same staging, and their easy familiarity with the work led to good onstage chemistry that made the evening fizzle along. Some hard work and preparation by stage director Louisa Muller elevated the opera into much more than a series of dramatic confrontations between a would-be rapist, his enabling servant and a series of potential victims both of sexual assault and the various lies, hustles and schemes that he perpetrates in the name of lust.

For his part, Mr. Pisaroni made the Don a compelling and slightly tragic figure, cold to all yet driven by an unmanageable internal fire. And yet, he had enough charm for Zerlina and Elvira, sweeping the audience along in his mad quest. Mr. Abdrazakov's Leporello was a marvelous foil, capable of his own deviousness and just as deviant as his master. Both men shone in the Act II finale, in the presence of the statue of the Commendatore. That good man was presented here with dark tone from bass Stefan Kocán.

Rachel Willis-Sørensen proved a good choice for Donna Anna, with her cold, slightly flinty soprano voice giving wing to "Or sai chi l'onore" and "Non mi dir." She reached for a difficult ornament in the first aria, and came back with a glittering prize. She was paired with tenor Stanislas de Barbeyrac as Don Ottavio, who won the crowd with his simple, earnest singing. As usual for this production, both of the character's arias (written for different versions of the opera) were included.

The third debut was Federica Lombardi, who understood the psychological complexities of Donna Elvira. Of the three female leads in this opera, Elvira is the only one who actually loves the Don, and her doomed obsession with him was carried off with dramatic weight and comedic timing. Each of her entrances in the first act brought laughter from the responsive and involved audience. In the second act, the complexities of "Mi tradi" were easily navigated, though the beginning of the aria was taken very, very fast.

That brisk and bustling approach from Mr. Meister informed the entire performance, keeping the long string of scenes with Zerlina and Masetto (and the Don's attempts to ruin their wedding plans by seducing the former) bubbling along. As Zerlina, soprano Aida Garifullina was the fourth debut of the night, using her tiny soprano to good effect in the two little numbers she sings to Masetto. The only complaint is that both she and Ms. Lombardi need to work on the angle and placement of their respective offstage screams. Both dramatically important, these moments were lost in the cavernous set.

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