Opera / The Berkshire Review in Boston

Mozart, Don Giovanni, Boston Lyric Opera, April 26th, 2009

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Don Giovanni (baritone Christopher Schaldenbrand) tries to restrain Donna Elvira (soprano Kimwana Doner). Photo T Charles Erickson
Don Giovanni (baritone Christopher Schaldenbrand) tries to restrain Donna Elvira (soprano Kimwana Doner). Photo T Charles Erickson

Conductor –  Anthony Barrese

Stage Director – Tazewell Thompson*
Set Designer – Donald Eastman*
Costume Designer – Merrily Murray-Walsh*
Lighting Designer: – Robert Wierzel
Fight Director – Robert Walsh

Don Giovanni – Christopher Schaldenbrand*
Donna Anna – Susanna Phillips*
Donna Elvira – Kimwana Doner
Don Ottavio: – Matthew Plenk*
Leporello – Matthew Burns
Zerlina – Heather Johnson
Masetto:         Joseph Valone
Commendatore:         Ulysses Thomas
[* BLO Debut]

Is Don Giovanni the greatest of all operas? Many have said so. It is highly arguable. I myself would agree with the proposition. The opera presents a large cast of characters, all subject to intense feelings and conflict of feeling, or conflict between feeling and ideas or values. The characters go through changes, or at least dramatic ups and downs. Everything is rendered into highly expressive music, constantly inventive, finding new forms. Some of the many wonderful ensembles (three to six singers) stop time for lyrical outpouring and meditation, but others develop ongoing human interaction and characters’ changes of heart. Sonata form, with exposition and development of themes, embodies human experience in time. As in Shakespeare, comedy gives some perspective on the high drama, here a drama of seduction, rape, jealousy, self-hatred, civilized oblivion to others’ feelings, class conflict, and the easy resort to violence. The title character’s comic servant, Leporello, gives us some space to breathe, commenting on and making light of events — but he is very disturbing in his acceptance and resignation: this is how things are, how things must be. The characters are fallible, losing control of themselves, taken over by passions, doing harm to one another. But they are sympathetic — Mozart feels for them, enjoys them, loves them (as Jean Renoir loves his fallible characters in his Mozart-inspired film Rules of the Game). In midst of the more human-scaled characters and profoundly affecting them all is Don Giovanni, aristocratic, superhuman in charm and forcefulness, amoral and free-spirited. In a sense he extends into a pure and complete state the fallibility, the temptation to let go and violate respectability, felt by the other characters and only partially realized by them. And in the end he is the sacrificial victim, pulled down to Hell so that the others can return to respectable life, pull in their feelings, and harp on a moral — and yet the final ensemble, after the Don’s demise, “Questo è il fin di chi fa mal,” is gorgeously propulsive counterpoint, the final great invention of this opera, truly life-affirming. Mozart is complex.

Kierkegaard felt this to be the greatest of operas because it has found the perfect subject for music: seduction — seduction by a force other and greater than oneself, self-seduction, seduction away from respectability and the norms that hold the world together and keep its peace. Charles Rosen in his epochal book The Classical Style writes about the identity of music and sin, which Mozart puts his finger on with this work. The proper domain of opera is sin. Here we get the ur-opera, and opera in its fullest flowering. Religion, or the metaphysical, enters this opera with the man Don Giovanni kills, who returns as a living tomb statue to drag the Don down to Hell (trombones blaring, as at the beginning of the Overture). But as with Shakespeare’s Hamlet and the father’s ghost there who comes to the world of the living to enjoin revenge, this is not church-sanctioned metaphysics. Mozart (like Shakespeare) invokes something primitive, which sanctioned religion struggles to encompass: nature itself, as it were, beyond the human, rising up to answer sin, entering the world of sin, perhaps sinning in the process. — Don Giovanni has much in common with Hamlet, notably the length, the unshapely quality, the mixture of comic and tragic modes, where finally everything seems artistically perfect, a perfect, in part because rough and open, imitation of life.

The recent performances by the Boston Lyric Opera were well worth attending, for many reasons. But it has to be said right away that there was a serious mistake in the conception of the main character. Baritone Christopher Schaldenbrand has the voice for this part, grand and, one wants to say, aristocratic-sounding. He is tall and good-looking, more than that, interesting-looking. He sounded fine in the ensembles, and tossed off his difficult fast aria, “Fin ch’han dal vino,” with ease and verve, where the Don is left alone for a moment and lets his pure animal spirits overflow. But Schaldenbrand and stage director Tazewell Thompson must share responsibility for presenting the Don for the most part as a lout — charmless, leering, sneering, stumbling about the stage, making embarrassing melodramatic gestures, finally unable to hold his liquor. How could this character seriously interest the others in the opera? The Schaldenbrand/Thompson conception of the Don demeans the other characters. And how could this Don interest an audience, except as a vulgarity they can easily label, going home unthinkingly after having seen something familiarly amusing? Audiences deserve more, and are up for more. Mozart gives us in Don Giovanni a superior, complex, all-too-human force of nature. We need to feel awed by it and seduced by it and also feel the need to destroy it.

The Lyric’s simple, stately unit set (by Donald Eastman) worked well, suggesting a southern-European anyplace of the last two or three centuries where such events and feelings as this opera’s might occur. The great opening scene was highly effective, beginning with some banter from Leporello, and moving on to the Don’s assault on the not altogether unwilling Donna Anna and then the fight to the death with her father — ending with the wonderful trio for three low male voices, evoking the profound otherness of death like nothing else in opera (“Ah, soccorso!”). The dark lighting here was good, as was the lighting throughout (by Robert Wierzel), suggesting again and again an other-worldly perspective on the events before us. In this first scene the Don was still a mysterious, scary aristocrat, and we might have been in old Seville. More and more the costumes (beautiful, by Merrily Murray-Walsh) and other details suggested mid-twentieth-century Italy, which worked fine as long as there was a nice blur and ambiguity about time and place. Sometimes Italy became too specific and obtrusive, as with Leporello wolfing a plate of pasta while singing. Bass-baritone Matthew Burns was a very engaging Leporello, with a big voice, great stage presence, plenty of humanity. He was given too much farcical “business,” but he handled it well, making it organically part of the character. The other best singer was Susanna Phillips as Donna Anna. Phillips carried off this soaring, passionate, difficult music extremely well — a woman hurt, angry, self-protective, self-doubting. One was always glad to see Phillips come onstage, and never disappointed, right up to her daunting aria late in the piece, “Non mi dir.” Tenor Matthew Plenk as Anna’s fiancé Don Ottavio brought a nice pressing, selfish, “masculine” quality to the role — not the polite and boring figure one sometimes sees. Soprano Kimwana Doner did pretty well with Donna Elvira, who still loves and pursues Don Giovanni — and ruins his fun — after he has abandoned her. Some notes and runs and phrases came through strongly; some did not. Doner had beautiful clothes and wore them really well — she got a laugh at the end when she says that she will now retire to a convent. Mezzo Heather Johnson sang the peasant girl Zerlina really well, but was not the usual innocent — she had an experienced air, which is fine. Bass Ulysses Thomas and baritone Joseph Valone were good, respectively, as Donna Anna’s father, the Commendatore, and Zerlina’s jealous and abused fiancé, Masetto. In sum, a good array of people, temperaments, voices, passions. Anthony Barrese conducted with drive and a strong rhythmic sense, and held the diverse elements together. But he did not draw out and relish Mozart’s wonderful wind writing and other orchestral detail — it was all a bit fast and monotone. And the orchestra did not play with the precision and refinement it has shown under other Lyric Opera conductors such as Stephen Lord or Keith Lockhart — an opera orchestra in Boston should really be more impressive than this.

This company offers a very enticing lineup for next season: Bizet’s Carmen, Britten’s The Turn of the Screw, Richard Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos, and Mozart’s Idomeneo. Let us hope everything goes as well as may be.

P.S. — Some readers may appreciate a little qualification of the statement made above that the proper domain of opera is sin. Of course, sometimes the point is relief from sin, as in The Marriage of Figaro or Falstaff. And sometimes religion or idealism appears as really transporting, taking life out of itself — The Magic Flute, Fidelio, Die Meistersinger. I think the home domain remains the home domain.

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