United States Mozart, Don Giovanni: Soloists, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Sir Andrew Davis, (conductor), Civic Opera House, Chicago. 27.9.2014 (JLZ)
Leporello: Kyle Ketelsen
Donna Anna: Marina Rebeka
Don Giovanni: Mariusz Kwieceń
The Commendatore: Andrea Silvestrelli
Don Ottavio: Antonio Poli
Donna Elvira: Ana María Martínez
Zerlina: Andriana Chuchman
Masetto: Michael Sumuel
Conductor: Sir Andrew Davis
Director: Robert Falls
Set Designer: Walt Spangler
Costume Designer: Ana Kuzmanic
Lighting Designer: Duane Schuler
Chorus Master: Michael Black
Choreographer: August Tye
To commemorate its 60th anniversary, Lyric Opera of Chicago inaugurated the 2014–2015 season with the work that opened the company, Don Giovanni. Updating the setting to 1920s Spain, just before the Spanish Civil War, this new production was directed by Robert Falls, using Art Deco elements to inform the costumes by Ana Kuzmanic, and sets by Walt Spangler. A modern revolver replaces the epée as the weapon of choice, and it became quite prominent onstage, with almost each principal brandishing a gun at some point. It was unusual, though, to have Donna Elvira shoot Don Giovanni before the arrival of the Stone Guest. (Even though this gesture added to the irony of Donna Elvira’s decision in the epilogue to join a convent.)
Other details sometimes distracted rather than supported, such as the suggestion of bondage when the Don used handcuffs on Donna Anna in the first scene. Other modern elements might be rethought, such as anachronistic plastic wine glasses clattering at various points—rather out of character for the 1920s. But overall the sets warranted attention, offering optimal performing space, with lavish floral displays at the Don’s estate and in the otherwise austere Act II graveyard. That said, however, in the “champagne” aria in Act I, Don Giovanni was left in the midst of the cast, in lieu of a more prominent position.
The production does offer an alternative to the 17th- or 18th-century settings commonly used. The political issues associated with Spain of the time, particularly its failing monarchy, afforded the director an excellent opportunity to accentuate “Viva la liberta!” in the first act, and other class distinctions that were as important in Mozart’s time as they are in the twentieth century.
The cast was uniformly strong, with Mariusz Kwieceń bringing his customary élan to the title role. His diction, line and phrasing enabled greater appreciation of the text, especially in the recitatives. At times, perhaps, he declaimed with uncharacteristic roughness, suggesting at times the style of a character from a Verdi opera, rather than Mozart. Yet his second-act serenade deserves attention for the elegant, resonant style—an exemplary reading. There is no question that Kwieceń stands apart as a powerful Don Giovanni.
As Leporello, Kyle Ketelsen was superb, combining singing and acting to create an outstanding depiction. His musical and comic timing mitigated some of the staging, his voice giving a sense of the traditional oversize book of conquests (reduced to a modest date book here). As Donna Anna, Marina Rebeka never let her anger overtake the passion her character should possess, a quality particularly visible in the second-act aria “Non mi dir,” which, thrillingly, stopped the performance, the audience responding readily with generous applause. If at times her voice was a bit shrill, this aria offered ample compensation. Ana María Martínez was effective as Donna Elvira, whose revulsion at the Don’s insensitivity was matched by her obsession with him. Martínez was reliable throughout, but was sometimes challenged by the imbalances in the orchestra. The aria “Mi tradi” was exceptionally fast, blurring Martinez’s usual precision.
As Don Ottavio, Antonio Poli’s lithe tenor was never challenged by the demands of range or phrasing, offering a fine “Il mio tesoro” and an even more memorable “Dalla sua pace.” The latter seemed effortless, thanks to thoughtful phrasing and breath control. Poli was also effective in the ensembles. Zerlina and Massetto were also well cast with Andriana Chuchman and Michael Sumuel, respectively. Chuchman brought out details that escape other Zerlinas, as in her seamless “La ci darem la mano,” the famous duet with Kwieceń. Their voices blended nicely and the resulting resonances were rich and full. Later, the aria “Batti, batti” had an appropriately dramatic tone, as Zerlina resolved her differences with Massetto. In the latter role Michael Sumuel gave a strong characterization, both vocally and dramatically.
The orchestra sounded confident in this familiar score, but it was overly vigorous at various times and masked the singers. Sir Andrew Davis shaped the music but the volume was challenging at various points, perhaps due to the acoustical properties of the new sets. Even so, some of the tempos raised questions. For example, “Mi tradi,” the opening of the banquet scene near the end of Act I, was unnecessarily fast, the text audible but incomprehensible. There were also pauses that miscued the audience, as in the middle section of the first-act “catalog” aria. The applause interrupted the music’s flow, and therefore interrupted the scene. A similar interruption occurred at the end of the opera, when the sustained applause made the final sextet seem anticlimactic.
This was not the usual opening night at Lyric, given a subdued atmosphere in the lobby. Instead of the appetizers usually served, the space was filled with huge planters of palms and calla lilies that provided backdrops for an unusual number of photographs. This was a night that usually brings out dedicated subscribers, and unfortunately for them, the milieu seemed understated rather than celebratory.
James L. Zychowicz
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