Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond
A Don Undone
October 14, 2011
The walls are back at The Metropolitan Opera. The company has had a run on homegrown new productions in the last few years with sets dominated by giant walls with shuttered openings for characters to pop in and out of “Laugh-In” style throughout the performance. Peter Grimes comes to mind, as do Doctor Atomic and La Damnation de Faust. But Michael Grandage’s stupifyingly dull new production of Don Giovanni takes the whole concept one step further. The entire set is composed of two giant walls, one in front of the other. Both consist of balconies or entrance ways on three levels, each space shuttered with double doors. The front wall breaks apart to reveal the back one. But oddly, very few of these doors are ever opened and the principal vocalists rarely sing from any of these vantage points. Instead Grandage is about wall for wall's own sake. The great majority of the entire evening takes place at the foot of the stage in front of one of these walls with entrances and exits made mostly from stage right or stage left. The production might seem revolutionary in its deconstructed almost primitive version of stagecraft if it wasn’t so vacant. It's hard to decipher what Grandage has contributed to this staging overall in that the direction is so subtle it borders on the non-existent. Many in the opera world have been critical about the lack of meaningful stage direction in the Met’s new Robert Lepage-conceived Ring Cycle arguing that technical wizardry is supplanting everything else. And Grandage's vision is ironically similar, just without the special effects. Difficulties in mounting Wagner's magnum opus are to be expected and rarely does any one organization get it completely right. But when a company manages to mount a Don Giovanni without an ounce of swagger, sexiness, or sincere laughter, there is really something to worry about.
Of course this long, dull evening had many other weak spots. The show was originally scheduled to be headed by Metropolitan Opera Music Director James Levine and was to star Polish baritone Mariusz Kwiecien in the title role. Both have suffered from spinal problems (Levine's ongoing, Kwiecien's acute and unexpected in the week prior to the opening) forcing their absence from this show. But I doubt that the presence of either artist could have saved this mess. Nor did the outcome bode well for Levine heir-apparent, Fabio Luisi, who did little in the pit to keep this ship moving fleetly along. The orchestral performance was slow and ponderous. Kwiecien’s replacement, Peter Mattei had a much better evening. He is a compelling Giovanni, even in these least desirable of circumstances, although his summons into this production at the last minute clearly took its toll, and he and the rest of the cast appeared under-rehearsed. Which is doubly ironic considering that they had so little to do besides flounce around aimlessly in period costumes.
The rest of the cast was hit and miss. Ramon Vargas was a beautifully warm Don Ottavio. Marina Rebeka and Mojca Erdmann were both making their house debuts as Donna Anna and Zerlina respectively and both turned in some lovely vocal moments. I was most taken with Luca Pisaroni’s Leporello whose canniness often stole Giovanni’s spotlight in this version of events. Barbara Frittoli was an oddly miscast Donna Elvira crushing some of the more delicate moments in her character’s part. Yet on the whole, these performers never quite seemed to gel as a cast. The relationships were vague and undefined and what characterizations there were, were cartoonish. And even the large ball and dinner scenes were flat and unclear. The concluding descent of Don Giovanni into hell was surrounded in 1980s rock video pyrotechnics and from the near cricket-like silence from large chunks of the audience at the curtain call, it appeared that few were won over with these stunts. Company general manager Peter Gelb remarked in the press recently that the Met was due for a new Don Giovanni and sadly after this most disappointing of opening nights, it still is. The show runs into November and beyond if you’ve got the nerve for it.