Robert Falls’ Carnal, Noirish Don Giovanni

United StatesUnited States Mozart, Don Giovanni: Lyric Opera of Chicago Orchestra and Chorus, Sir Andrew Davis (conductor), Michael Black (chorus master), Civic Opera House, Chicago, Illinois. 27.9.2014 (DP)

Leporello: Kyle Ketlesen
Donna Anna: Marina Rebeka
Don Giovanni: Mariusz Kwiechień
The Commandatore: Andrea Silvestrelli
Don Ottavio: Antonio Poli
Donna Elvira: Ana María Martínez
Zerlina: Andriana Chuchman
Masetto: Michael Sumuel

New Lyric Opera of Chicago Production
Director: Robert Falls
Sets: Walt Spangler
Costumes: Ana Kuzmanic
Lighting: Duane Schuler

In February of 1954, a production of Don Giovanni became the debut “calling card” of what was then called Lyric Theatre of Chicago, later Lyric Opera of Chicago. As such, Don Giovanni has remained a company favorite through the decades, regularly presented and particularly associated with company milestone anniversaries.

Thus, a new production of Don Giovanni to open Lyric Opera’s 60th anniversary season was a given. What was somewhat of a surprise, however, was the choice of Tony Award-winning director Robert Falls, best known for his oppressively-compelling Eugene O’Neill productions and his audacious rethinking of classic stage plays, to direct his first-ever Don Giovanni.

Ana María Martínez as Donna Elvira in "Don Giovanni" at Lyric Opera of Chicago. Photo: Todd Rosenberg.
Ana María Martínez as Donna Elvira in “Don Giovanni” at Lyric Opera of Chicago. Photo: Todd Rosenberg.

Longtime artistic director of Chicago’s Goodman Theatre, Falls had directed productions of Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah and Gian Carlo Menotti’s The Consul for the company back in the 1990s. Susannah marked the Lyric Opera debut of soprano Renée Fleming, creative consultant for the company since 2010 and was revived at Lyric and at the Metropolitan Opera. But those were contemporary operas, not a familiar and revered icon of the repertoire, especially one specifically called dramma giocoso (“joyous drama”) by librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte that apart from its serious beginning and end, had many comedic elements of an opera buffa, as Mozart himself called Don Giovanni in his catalog of works.

Eyebrows began to raise a bit when it was announced that for the first time in Lyric Opera’s history, instead of presenting Don Giovanni in its original 18th-century time period, Falls had decided to update the setting to the 1920s, before the Spanish Civil War and World War II. That actually turned out to be less intrusive of an artistic decision than how Falls chose to stage the work, with a heavy-handed dark and carnal modus operandi that often struggles against the music for audience attention.

From the moment the curtain opens in the Commendatore’s garden with American bass-baritone Kyle Ketlesen’s carefree and suave Leporello singing “Notte e giorno faticar,” the audience is instead drawn to Don Giovanni (Polish baritone Mariusz Kwiechień) and Donna Anna (Latvian soprano Marina Rebeka) appearing to have violent sex through the blinds of the upper window while Leperello is singing. Whether this is to be viewed as rape or mutual consent is a question that Falls leaves ambiguous, at least initially.

In case there is any doubt as to Don Giovanni’s intentions, he does not kill the Commendatore (Italian bass Andrea Silvestrelli) accidentally in a duel, but callously shoots him in cold blood. He then sadistically sits on top of him while he is bleeding to death, bending over so they are intimately face-to-face at which point Don Giovanni triumphantly removes his A Clockwork Orange-like white mask. Any ounce of empathy we might feel for the Don is done away with.

By the time Don Ottavio (Italian tenor Antonio Poli) comes on the scene, he and Donna Anna are dipping their hands in the Commendatore’s wound and holding up their blood-soaked hands while singing “Ah, vendicar, se il puoi, giura quel sangue ognor!” From that point on, we will see Donna Anna attired in a Spanish-style black mourning dress, wallowing in her lust for revenge often before or after going to church or praying. Her singing will often reflect being anxious and be full of tense vibrato, a reflection of her persona.

Donna Elvira (Puerto-Rican soprano Ana María Martínez) is a flamboyant, rust leather-clad biker chick with suede boots who enters walking a motorcycle with a sidecar; she exudes a toughness and swagger that would seem more at home in Carmen, but those traits do figure in to the way her character trajectory is developed in this version. Even her singing is sometimes steely in some of her high notes—even a tad shriek—which matches her edginess.

Zerlina (Canadian soprano Andriana Chuchman) is dressed in all white and a flowered headband for her wedding day, but Don Giovanni is soon seducing her during “Là ci darem la mano”; her delightfully thrilling high notes and trills are the titillating response to the Don fondling her breasts. In fact, there is rarely a sung moment in this production where someone is not physically seducing someone else, and the advances, even if initially put off, quickly give way to acceptance with the recipient giving back as much, if not more, than they are given.

If all of this sounds distracting, it initially is, but it quickly becomes the default setting of the action and each repetition makes it all seem more like business as usual. That the cast itself is young, attractive, and sings up a storm without breaking character makes it all quite compelling and persuasive.

By the time Don Giovanni heads to his inevitable damnation, it is hard to tell who the real villain is in this production, so harshly drawn are all the other characters. The would-be vigilante Commendatore had a gun on the Don in the first scene, although it is taken from him and used fatally against him. He, his daughter, her fiancée and the virtually psychotic Donna Elvira—even Masetto (American bass-baritone Michael Sumuel)—all come off as narcissistic and revenge-driven folks that need 12-step anger management programs. Even Leporello comes off green with envy of Giovanni, who in some ways is the most consistent character of this production, since only he seems always to know and get what he wants.

Walt Spangler’s sets rarely take advantage of the depth of the cavernous Civic Opera House stage, the scenery usually pushed to the front to offer a claustrophobic feel, a sense augmented by Duane Schuler’s atmospheric use of light. Ana Kuzmanic’s costumes range from vibrantly contemporary to the highly-textured old world look of the lower classes.

Musically, this is an amazing production, with master Mozartean and Lyric Opera music director Sir Andrew Davis getting the right balance of drama and charm from the score, even if on opening night, at least, tempos were a bit sluggish in the early part of Act I. Accompanist William C. Billingham keeps the recitative sections moving along at a good clip and Michael Black’s chorus manages to convincingly run the gamut from celebratory peasants in the Act I wedding scene to spine-tingling shrieks of damnation in the finale.

All of the principals have excellent chemistry both vocally and dramatically—no small feat—and particularly excel in their ensemble numbers.

Falls has his own unique way of summing up what the opera is about in the finale that will not be spoiled here, but suffice to say that the climax has seldom been as heart-pounding for the audience as it is here and at the end of the day, it supports the rest of his aesthetic decisions down the line. So much tension is built up to the end of the damnation scene that on opening night, the audience went so wild with its ovation that there was the fear that the moralizing final sextet may have been cut (as indeed was once commonplace). Instead, after such a long bit of applause and with the full house lights on, the sextet came off almost cinematically, like an epilog placed at the end of a series of film credits.

Dennis Polkow

1 thought on “Robert Falls’ Carnal, Noirish<i> Don Giovanni</i>”

  1. The production was marred by a bright light shone onto the floor which reflected into the upper balcony, blinding the audience. This preceded every entrance of the Commendatore. If it was intended as an intentional effect, it was ham handed and utterly distracting. If it was unintentional, I hope it will be corrected in future performances.


Leave a Comment