San Francisco Opera’s Don Giovanni sounds great but looks puzzling

United StatesUnited States Mozart, Don Giovanni: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of San Francisco Opera / Bertrand de Billy (conductor). War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco, 12.6.2022. (HS)

Zerlina (Christina Gansch) and Masetto (Cody Quattlebaum) © Cory Weaver

Director – Michael Cavanagh
Sets and Projection – Erhard Rom
Costumes – Constance Hoffman
Lighting – Jane Cox
Chorus director – John Keene
Fight director – Dave Maier

Don Giovanni – Etienne Dupuis
Donna Anna – Adela Zaharia
Donna Elvira – Nicole Car
Don Ottavio – Amitai Pati
Leporello – Luca Pisaroni
Zerlina – Christina Gansch
Masetto – Cody Quattlebaum
Commendatore – Soloman Howard

Michael Cavanaugh’s grand concept for staging the three Mozart/Da Ponte operas at San Francisco Opera got off to a promising start in 2019, peaked last fall and, unfortunately, got in its own way now with Don Giovanni. Let’s just say that impressively high standards of singing and blessedly detailed playing by the orchestra under guest conductor Bertrand de Billy trumped the staging.

Erhard Rom’s sets for these productions portray the same American mansion three centuries apart. The idea worked nicely enough for Le nozze di Figaro in 2019, the not-quite-finished building mirroring a post-Colonial era that vibrated with revolutionary fervor. Così fan tutte last fall, set in the 1930s when the mansion had been repurposed as a country club, fit that story spectacularly well. The bleak future of this Don Giovanni, suggesting a world in which greed has broken down society and the mansion is in ruins, could not jibe with the details of a story set in specific places and social mores.

The best antidote for this listener was to focus on the music and a brilliant cast that brought each character into sharp relief. Cavanaugh gets some credit here. The cast created individual characters we could relate to, and that paid dividends in scene after scene. They didn’t just sing to each other, they hit telling dramatic notes. It was, blessedly, like peeking into the private lives of real people. And they sang gloriously.

Several were fresh from the same roles at Paris Opera earlier this year, including the husband-and-wife team of Canadian baritone Étienne Dupuis as the Don and Australian soprano Nicole Car as Donna Elvira, German soprano Adela Zaharia as Donna Anna and Austrian soprano Christina Gansch as Zerlina. De Billy conducted those performances too, and their experience together surely helped make this go-round feel so seamless.

As the central character, Dupuis invested the Don with a suave baritone that shone most brightly in lyric moments. As with baritones such as Hermann Prey and Thomas Hampson, actions rather than vocal heft implied the character’s nastiness. The Act II serenade, ‘Deh vieni Walla fenestra’, was a marvel of delicacy and vocal control. In a winning directorial touch, women drawn by the sound of the serenade crept onto the stage like moths to a flame, a nice way to show why otherwise smart women continue to be drawn to this character even when they know he is a sexual predator.

Car joined the cast only two weeks before the opener (replacing Carmen Giannattasio, who pulled out to recover from abdominal surgery), and she was a gem. Car’s Elvira was not the nutcase usually portrayed but a dignified woman on a mission to regain respect for herself and the other women mistreated by Giovanni, even if she was still besotted by love. Her ‘Mi tradi’ was a gleaming culmination of the character’s venom toward Giovanni, a torrent of sharply executed coloratura bringing the aria to a climax.

Zaharia invested Donna Anna with a steely backbone and gracefulness rather than the fluster we often see in the character. Her aria in Act I, ‘Or sai chi l’onore’, set the tone, a marvel of richly resonant sound and pointed intent. Like Car, she emanated dignity and unyielding resolve.

Gansch, who triumphed in SF Opera’s Orlando in 2019 as Dorinda, created a Zerlina who was more of a badass than the usual naïve youth. In the duet ‘La ci darem la mano’, she is forceful in fending Giovanni off until even she succumbs to his seductiveness. But she is not swooning so much as conveying a ‘What the hell, let’s go’ attitude.

In scene after scene, duets, trios and other ensembles, these women’s voices carried the music with finesse.

On the male side, veteran Italian baritone Luca Pisaroni as Leporello, Giovanni’s servant, made his presence felt in every scene with bristly humor, intuitive timing and dramatic flair, and a voice that wrapped itself around every phrase. The scene with Elvira and the catalog aria benefited from a theatrical touch when he extracted the catalog of Giovanni’s conquests from the shopping cart that holds his belongings, selected a few slides and projected them onto a wall so both could grasp the size of the long lists. Pisaroni’s timing and vocal agility, however, is what made the scene pop.

As Don Ottavio, Anna’s swain, tenor Amitai Pati stepped out from the shadow of his brother, Pene Pati, to deliver elegant singing in ensembles and a respectably smooth ‘Dalla sua pace’ in Act I. As Masetto, Zerlina’s betrothed, baritone Cody Quattlebaum paired well with Gansch both dramatically and vocally, especially in their intimate duets. The powerful sound of bass Solomon Howard had all the heft needed to make a commanding Commendatore, even if the production required that he sing mostly off-stage.

We can also debate whether it was wise to use Mozart’s full 1788 Vienna revision, which adds Don Ottavio’s ‘Dalla sua pace’, Elvira’s ‘Mi tradì’ and a Leporello-Zerlina scene that’s usually cut, but omits Ottavio’s Act II aria, ‘Il mid tesoro’, and some 60 measures from the finale. No serious damage done, but it did feel like something was missing.

And that brings us back to the overall staging concept, which makes sense in a general way but stumbles over details. A single crumbling structure appears to house the Commendatore and Donna Anna, AND Donna Elvira and her maid (whom Giovanni serenades), AND a cemetery (where Giovanni encounters the Commendatore’s statue and invites it to dinner). The same ‘room’ where a stack of stone slabs occupies the center and one wall has totally collapsed somehow becomes a space where the wall has a mere crack.

Part of this conception extends to Constance Hoffman’s costumes, which are intended to look like people have scavenged them from the previous two operas in the trilogy. Giovanni enters in a well-worn Revolutionary Army uniform, looking for all the world like an escapee from a Hamilton production. Car and Zaharia are lithe and slim, and Donna Anna and Donna Elvira slink around in elegant gowns that appear to be lifted from a 1940s film. With puffy red hair and a pink tutu over tight jeans, Zerlina presents a sort of punk vibe. Leporello’s bowler hat calls to mind figures in A Clockwork Orange.

Don Giovanni (Étienne Dupuis) encounters the Commendatore © Cory Weaver

Three flats painted as the exterior of the house, festooned with fraying American flags, drop into place to frame a number of scenes. This got be annoying. The statue, however, delivers a remarkable coup de théâtre. It is a giant head, 24 feet tall, with a Liberty Bell crack down the middle. The head splits in two in the climactic scene to reveal a hollow chamber as it draws Giovanni to a fiery comeuppance. With Howard singing from the pit in full splendor, the scene made an explosive impact.

The best approach to all this was to forget any staging puzzles and revel in the music. After a shaky start in the overture that blurred too many details, conductor De Billy corralled the orchestra and singers into tautly focused ensembles and expressive music making. The accompaniments to arias and duets revealed elements of the score that often blow by unnoticed, all the while pacing tempos and finding nuanced phrasing.

Combined with such brilliant singing, this added up to a performance not soon to be forgotten.

Harvey Steiman

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