Nathalie Stutzmann leads a luxury cast in Ivo van Hove’s stark, powerful Met production of Don Giovanni

United StatesUnited States Mozart, Don Giovanni: Soloists, Metropolitan Opera Chorus and Orchestra / Nathalie Stutzmann (conductor). Metropolitan Opera, New York, 9.5.2023. (RP)

Peter Mattei (Don Giovanni) © Karen Almond / Met Opera

Production – Ivo van Hove
Set and Lighting – Jan Versweyveld
Costumes – An D’Huys
Projection – Christopher Ash
Choreographer – Sara Erde

Don Giovanni – Peter Mattei
Donna Anna – Federica Lombardi
Donna Elvira – Ana María Martínez
Zerlina – Ying Fang
Don Ottavio – Ben Bliss
Leporello – Adam Plachetka
Masetto – Alfred Walker
Commendatore – Dmitry Belosselskiy

This is Mozart month at the Metropolitan Opera. Ivo van Hove’s powerful, cogent staging of Mozart’s dramma giocoso is currently running and will soon be followed by Simon McBurney’s ‘wildly-creative’ Die Zauberflöte. Common to both is conductor Nathalie Stutzmann who, along with the two directors, is making her first appearances at the Met.

Van Hove’s Don Giovanni originated at the Opéra national de Paris in 2019. He has studied the score as well as the libretto, and there is nothing in his modern-day take on the opera that Da Ponte and Mozart didn’t put there. His deft characterizations, which the cast embodied so well, heightened both the opera’s darkness and its humor.

The action is updated to present-day Seville and unfolds in a town square, of the sort that can be found almost anywhere in Southern Europe. Five brutalist concrete buildings, devoid of any color or decoration, dominate the stage. Steam intermittently rises from beneath the pavement, as if the fires of hell were trying to escape through any crack in the earth’s crust. It is an environment created in Don Giovanni’s own image.

Van Hove’s Don Giovanni is unrepentant and unredeemable, prone to violence and a womanizer of the ‘grab-’em-by-the-pussy’ sort. He also carries a gun, yet then again almost every other man on stage packs heat. Van Hove may not have intended to put present-day America under the lens, but it is impossible to dismiss the parallels.

The noble characters are costumed in the uniform of today’s elite: suit and tie for the men and tailored dresses or pants for the women. The townsfolk may not be as chic, but the monochrome color palette is the same. Color intrudes infrequently, even in the costumes, and most vividly at the party hosted by Don Giovanni for Zerlina and Masetto. As the party begins, female mannequins in jewel-toned, eighteenth-century dresses appear to observe the merrymaking. Dressed for a masquerade, Donna Anna, Donna Elvira and Don Ottavio arrive at the party attired in the same period style.

Van Hove introduces just a few concentrated bursts of color to the staging until the final scenes. After Don Giovanni murders Donna Anna’s father, she places a single red rose downstage to honor his memory. Later, it will be replaced by a white one. When the Commendatore appears, a small tablet bearing the inscription that his death will be avenged is placed there too, just as the words are sung by Leporello.

The Met has assembled a superlative cast for this run, anchored by Peter Mattei. His Don Giovanni is as suave in appearance as in voice. Mattei’s baritone is just beautiful and never more so than when his Don Giovanni is the most threatening. Mattei’s malevolence on display in the rapid-fire recitatives is contrasted to great effect by the captivating sounds of the continuo played by fortepiano, cello and theorbo. A whiff of danger, combined with Mattei’s natural elegance, makes it clear why so many women yield to his advances.

Adam Plachetka is an exemplary Mozartean, and his multi-faceted Leporello was the most complex character of the performance. There were few broad comedic strokes in Plachetka’s Leporello, in whom anger and resentment seethe just below a veneer of servitude, but much excellent singing and even some compassion towards the plight of Don Giovanni’s victims.

Ana María Martínez (Donna Elvira), Federica Lombardi (Donna Anna), Ben Bliss (Don Ottavio) © Karen Almond / Met Opera

The aristocratic trio of Federica Lombardi’s Donna Anna, Ana María Martínez’s Donna Elvira and Ben Bliss’s Don Ottavio were equally outstanding. While never striving to be funny, they expressed humor by simply being true to their characters’ natures.

Lombardi’s steadfast refusals to contemplate marriage were delivered with the understated touch of a great comedienne. Few sopranos can sing ‘Non mi dir’ with so much style and vocal luster, let alone grace it with such ravishing high notes.

Martinez’s Donna Elvira was no crazed madwoman, but her subtly zany take on the lovestruck woman did prompt a smile or two. She had one blind spot and that was her feelings for Don Giovanni, which she expressed with heartfelt sincerity. When betrayed, however, this Donna Elvira could erupt in rage at the turn of a dime. Martinez’s voice was lyrical and lovely regardless of the emotion that she was expressing.

Bliss sang both of Don Ottavio’s arias magnificently, and the warmth of his voice and the beautifully caressed phrases in ‘Dalla sua pace’ prompted the warmest applause of the evening. He displayed the same lyricism, coupled with winning bravura, in ‘Il mio tesoro’, which he tossed off with impressive ease.

As Zerlina, Ying Fang was as enticing vocally as she was physically. Alfred Walker’s Masetto was no naive peasant lad but a menacing man of the street. Walker’s baritone is as formidable as his appearance, which inserted danger and complexity into every scene in which he appeared. Dmitry Belosselskiy was a vocally imposing Commendatore. The blood splattered across his crisp white shirt was another rare insertion of color into van Hove’s concept.

Conductor Nathalie Stutzmann is also a contralto of note, and it was a singer’s touch that she brought to this performance. Her sense of line and phrasing stemmed from her intuitive understanding of what is required to sing Mozart’s music. She drew wonderful playing from the Met Orchestra, and her choice of continuo instruments added beguiling textures and colors to the soundscape.

As Don Giovanni’s death encroaches so do the buildings, which shift to form a flat surface where microscopic writhing specks of humanity are projected. In the center is a column of smoke, as if the vapors of hell have been released in a spouting geyser. The tiny beings become giant writhing figures as Don Giovanni disappears into the inferno.

The set then evolved into a square bathed in sunlight and full of life. Flowers brighten the scene, as did laundry drying in the fresh air. With the scourge of evil vanquished, joy returned to Seville.

Rick Perdian

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