So you think opera is merely a self-regarding art form, possibly effete and certainly devoid of essential life lessons? Take another look at Mozart’s Don Giovanni, that indispensable guide for the morally perplexed. There’s of course the Big Lesson—bad things happen to naughty people. Take that, you horndog Spaniard!
But on a more mundane level, there’s plenty to be learned: Beware of long engagements (wise up, Don Ottavio!), don’t chase after old boyfriends (guardate, Donna Elvira!), keep that bedroom locked (tsk tsk, Donna Anna!). And above all, remember Miss Post’s injunction: Never, ever invite a guest for dinner unless you’re prepared to accept a return invitation.
Giovanni gets taught manners. He murders Commendatore, then invites his victim’s sepulchral stone effigy to supper. Now the Don is obliged to share that stone guest’s little meal, but with his would-be host’s caveat: First, say you’re sorry for your nasty ways. He accepts the invitation, alright, but declines repentance, so off goes Giovanni, hurled headlong flaming with hideous ruin and combustion down to bottomless perdition, as John Milton would mildly put it.
But be advised: There’s nothing mild about the Santa Fe Opera’s current production of Don Giovanni, a revival from the 2004 season. It’s still the unsubtle, in-your-face show it was five years ago. Familiarity does not breed affection. This time around, minus the marvelous Mariusz Kwiecien, it’s even more of a bluster-fest. The SFO delivers a loud performance, and that’s not just because of the gaudy set and costumes.
The first notes of the overture warn us: Fasten your seat belts, it’s going to be a bumpy night. Conductor Lawrence Renes races through those terrifying D-minor scales like he was trying to win a bet. Mozart’s demonic introduction sounds out of breath. Here, and throughout the opera, rushed tempos are the order of the evening. Renes ignores the advice Richard Strauss offered budding conductors: He encourages the brass.
As one half of the opera seria couple, SFO newcomer Elza van den Heever’s Donna Anna shows high-volume vocal security but lacks the human touch that could make, say, “Non mi dir” either touching or convincing. Charles Workman, her feckless boyfriend, has a biggish, handsome voice that stays big, unfortunately, even in that melting second verse of “Dalla sua pace.”
Susanna Phillips enacts a fiery Donna Elvira, but suffers from blurry passagework and chancy intonation. Of the three ladies, Kate Lindsey is most successful. Her playful Zerlina, vocally agile and charmingly sung, proves an apt companion to Masetto, the capable Corey McKern.
Among the other male roles, Harold Wilson’s Commendatore lacks the vocal weight and gravitas that should pertain to a multi-ton hunk of marble. Matthew Rose makes a stimulating SFO debut as Leporello, full-voiced, assured, with a keen sense of the comic. He’s a major talent and, if his warm, rich bass reaches a bit higher, he might make a fine Giovanni, à la Cesare Siepi.
In the title role, Lucas Meachem displays a sinewy, pleasant light baritone, most effective in his serenade, “Deh vieni alla finestra.” But for the most part, he plays a sapless if strapping Giovanni, without much menace or demonic energy. The role calls for a darker voice, multi-sexual magnetism and a candle-to-moth intensity that the singer doesn’t provide. Still, and very much on the plus side of the agenda, the opera’s challenging ensembles, especially the concluding sextet, fare very well indeed.
About the visual aspects of the production—least said, soonest mended. To the director, Chas Rader-Shieber: Ditch the toy revolver and teach Giovanni some table manners. Clean up those hyperactive, incoherent finales.
To the set and costume designer, David Zinn: All that patched-together vermilion vulgarity didn’t work five years ago. It still doesn’t.
To the SFO: let Meachem and Rose switch roles for a while. It’s worth a try.
9 pm Wednesday, July 22
Through Aug. 27
The Santa Fe Opera