With a New Cast, the Stars Align for Don Giovanni at the Met

15/04/2019

Mozart, Don Giovanni: Soloists, Orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera / Cornelius Meister (conductor), Metropolitan Opera, New York, 12.4.2019. (RP)

Peter Mattei (Don Giovanni) © Marty Sohl/Met Opera

Peter Mattei (Don Giovanni) © Marty Sohl/Met Opera

Production:

Director – Michael Grandage
Sets & Costumes – Christopher Oram
Lighting – Paule Constable
Choreographer – Ben Wright
Revival Stage Director – Louisa Muller

Cast:

Don Giovanni – Peter Mattei
Donna Anna – Guanqun Yu
Donna Elvira – Susanna Phillips
Leporello – Adam Plachetka
Don Ottavio – Paul Appleby
Zerlina – Serena Malfi
Commendatore – Dmitry Belosselskiy
Masetto – Kihwan Sim

Mission accomplished! The Metropolitan Opera succeeded in casting its 574th performance of Don Giovanni with singers who not only have beautiful voices but are the physical embodiment of their characters. Singers have come and gone through the current 12-show run that opened on 30 January and ends on 18 April, but the stars aligned on this memorable evening.

Peter Mattei was the most physical Don Giovanni I have ever seen: lithe, sinewy and extraordinarily agile. It is amazing to watch him channel his body, voice and charisma into a whirlwind of dangerous energy, as if a tornado had touched down on stage. Reconciling Mattei’s suave elegant singing in ‘Là ci darem la mano’ and ‘Deh vieni alla finestra’ with his total immersion in his character’s hedonistic, feral ruthlessness is a leap, but it makes for a great Don Giovanni.

As Donna Anna, Guanqun Yu, attired in an elegant black dress and mantilla, brought an emotional urgency to this noble yet tragic woman. In the first scene of the opera, her Donna Anna was the dramatic equal of Mattei’s Don Giovanni, and her voice shimmered with a fiery intensity.

Donna Elvira was Susanna Phillips who, after some squally coloratura early on, got back on track: ‘Mi tradì quell’alma ingrata’ was spot on. Phillips, looking a bit like a classy schoolmarm, struck an effective balance between the comedy and melodrama that make this role so tricky to pull off.

An equally complex characterization was the Leporello of Adam Plachetka, the possessor of a singularly refined bass-baritone. He was funny and disdainful when singing of his master’s sexual conquests across Europe, but there is a pensiveness to his Leporello that is most unsettling. Like Donna Anna, a successful Leporello is a question of balance, and I found the one Plachetka struck particularly intriguing.

Paul Appleby stepped into the role of Ottavio a performance earlier than scheduled for an ailing Pavel Breslick. He’s not new to the production, but I was a bit disappointed as I wanted to hear Breslick at the Met; all of my previous encounters with him have been in the intimate confines of the Zurich opera house. But I am an Appleby fan and find the natural ease of his singing compelling, so I was not disappointed in his earnest Don Ottavio.

Mezzo-soprano Serena Malfi has a distinctive voice that added another layer of complexity to her Zerlina. She was a bit earthier than the average Zerlina and knew instinctively that she was playing with fire by merely engaging with Don Giovanni. Her Masetto was a particularly youthful appearing Kihwan Sim, who in contrast to Malfi’s Zerlina was far less worldly. They were fascinating foils for each other.

Amplifying the voice of the Commendatore in the cemetery scene made little sense. Dmitry Belosselskiy’s bass was far more impressive in his final encounter with Don Giovanni in its natural, undistorted state. Odder still was the decision to swap his imposing black tricorn hat and cape for a spectral Halloween costume when he comes to dine with Don Giovanni.

Cornelius Meister made his Met debut on the opening night of the run. He is young, energetic and charismatic – to a certain extent a German counterbalance to Canadian Yannick Nézet-Séguin, the Met’s musical director. Having conducted all of the performances to date, it would appear that he has established a good rapport with the orchestra and developed a sense of what makes a Met audience tick.

There is no question that he knows how to pace a performance and accommodate a singer’s strengths. With Mattei as the catalyst, he whipped up a dazzling frenzy of energy in the Champagne Aria and the Act I finale. Earlier he had permitted Appleby to spin out long legato lines and touch hearts in ‘Dalla sua pace la mia dipende’. By the end of Act II, however, Appleby could have benefitted from more forward propulsion from the podium in ‘Il mio tesoro’ and Yu in ‘Non mi dir’. They were still fresh voiced, but those ethereal voices were a bit more earthbound.

Michael Grandage’s 2011 production fills the Met stage while maintaining a human scale that neither overwhelms the period sensibilities of the opera nor the singers. Functionality reigns, however, rather than imagination or visual stimulation. For the outdoor scenes, a three-story rounded facade permits the intrigues to play out on various levels within individual rooms. This part of town has definitely seen better days, but its inhabitants are well dressed in attractive period costumes in subdued hues that glimmered under the soft lighting.

The facade breaks apart, crystal chandeliers descend and a large table takes center stage to transform the space into Don Giovanni’s palace. Later, when Don Giovanni and Leporello encounter the Commendatore in a cemetery, a giant, black statue of the Commendatore dominates another curved wall with 18 smaller versions in its alcoves. When they next meet, the gates of hell open with bursts of flame and billowing smoke to drag Don Giovanni into the abyss.

I have never been particularly fond of the madrigal that ends the opera, but this time it made sense. Everyone needed to wipe their brows and to take a deep breath after Mattei’s Don Giovanni, a true force of nature, had been vanquished. And suddenly and quite unexpectedly, there were blue skies instead of the dreary gloom.

Rick Perdian

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