BWW Review: Keenlyside Returns to Met with a Low-Key DON GIOVANNI
When last seen at the Met (by me, at least), baritone Simon Keenlyside showed off his suave vocalism and superior acting skills in a pair of operas based on Shakespeare: He was an elegant and intelligent Hamlet in Ambroise Thomas's eponymous opera and a charismatic Prospero in Thomas Ades's THE TEMPEST. He could have picked up on any of those traits and translated them into a memorable version of Mozart's Don Giovanni. Instead, he turned in a well-sung but too low-key performance.
Without that center of gravity, the piece really doesn't work well enough--after all, it is called DON GIOVANNI. And, despite a gorgeous score that throws its pearls broadly to all the major players--and bits of business Keenlyside brought from other productions--it's the characterization of the Don even more than his music that makes GIOVANNI live. (Is there a major character in opera with as little to sing as he? There's "Finch' han dal vino" [the "Champagne Aria" sans champagne here] and "Deh vieni alla finestra," both quite short, and his lovely duet with Zerlina, "La ci darem la mano.")
What went wrong? Well, certainly, the production didn't help. Michael Grandage's drab version of old Seville--with Christopher Oram (sets and costumes) and Paule Constable (lighting)--was a non-starter from its premiere in 2011, offering no particular point of view; time hasn't improved it under current stage director Louisa Miller. But the opera is more than its production: It also demands an A-list cast of acting singers, needing vocal heft as well as flexibility, that's hard to pull off. Yes, the cast worked together pretty well, but the results were mixed vocally at this first GIOVANNI of the season, with only one standout.
As Donna Anna and Donna Elvira, two of the Don's over 2000 conquests (some willing, some not), the Met cast two big-voiced artists, respectively, sopranos Hibla Gerzmava and Malin Bystrom. Of the two, I thought Gerzmava did better. Her acidic Russian voice barreled along quite nicely alongside the Met's fine orchestra, working at breakneck speed under conductor Fabio Luisi; when she'd really warmed up, Act II's "Non mi dir" soared. Bystrom, however, sounded muddy in her first aria, "Ah, chi mi dice mai"--singing about how she'd like to rip out the Don's heart--and simply didn't have the breath control for a successful "Mi tradi." ("Mi tradi" was a late addition to Mozart's score and calls for a certain kind of virtuosity that not all Elviras, including Bystrom, possess.)
Bass-baritone Adam Plachetka was a country bumpkin-ish Leporello, the Don's manservant, and gave a lively rendition of the "Catalogue aria," in which he breaks down his master's exploits by country. (It's hard to imagine him as the Don, a role he has sung in Vienna.) Plachetka towered over Keenlyside--a good visual joke except when it finally became ridiculous, as they impersonated one another in Act II.
As the country couple into whose wedding plans/bed the Don tries to insinuate himself, mezzo Serena Malfi (rousing, though somewhat pushed in her upper register, as Zerlina) and bass Matthew Rose (a sonorous bass) were a perfectly matched set. The Commendatore, Anna's father (whose murder by the Don sets the opera in motion), fit bass Kwangchul Youn well.
Tenor Paul Appleby, however, deserved the evening's prize--not simply for his polished singing but for somehow making Donna Anna's beau, Don Ottavio, more than the stick of a man. This is no small task in a role that is usually little more than a punching bag for the lady, at best.
Despite their wonderful scores, DON GIOVANNI and, perhaps even more, COSI FAN TUTTE, are hard to put across for modern audiences with their misogynist points of view. When the Met gets around to replacing the DON, It would be nice if they found someone, unlike Grandage, who could make these operas work for the 21st century, while respecting their roots in the 18th.
The October 22 performance of DON GIOVANNI will be transmitted worldwide as part of the Met's Live in HD series, which is now seen in more than 2,000 movie theaters in 70 countries around the world.
Additional performances: October 1mat, 5, 8, 11, 15mat, 19, 22mat, November 1, 4, 10, April 26, 29, May 3, 6, 11. Curtain times vary: complete schedule here.