Review: Splendid Singing, Erratic Direction Mark the Met's New DON GIOVANNI from Van Hove

Peter Mattei. Federica Lombardi, Ying Fang, Ben Bliss and Conductor Nathalie Stutzmann Spark Production Filled with Directorial Oddities

By: May. 11, 2023
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Review: Splendid Singing, Erratic Direction Mark the Met's New DON GIOVANNI from Van Hove
Mattei (c), Martinez, Lombardi, Bliss, ​​​​​​Walker,
Fang. Photo: Karen Almond/The Met

While I've always been bothered by the cruelties and misogyny of the main character, Mozart's DON GIOVANNI has (musically) been my favorite of the composer's operas, though either casting or design has been a regular issue in bringing off the work at its best.

Happily, the Met's new production by Belgian provocateur Ivo van Hove is a success, with a cast filled with wonderful singers--and the Met orchestra and chorus sounding great under debutante Nathalie Stutzmann. While the stark look by Jan Versweyveld may not be the one of my dreams and the director sometimes makes some odd choices for the opera itself, they didn't really get in the way of showing off its considerable charms.

Review: Splendid Singing, Erratic Direction Mark the Met's New DON GIOVANNI from Van Hove
Mattei. Photo: Karen Almond/The Met

First the singing. Baritone Mattei has been performing the title role for years but, frankly, has never sounded fresher or better. I don't know what his secret is, but if he could bottle it, he could retire on the proceeds for life; though in his late 50s, he sounds like he could go on forever. Having heard him in the role before, I know that any peculiarities--like his food fight while he waited for his dinner guest, Anna's father, the Commendatore (a stalwart Alexander Tsymbalyuk), whom he murdered. It was certainly the messiest bit of business I've ever seen in many, many productions--were the director's doings, not his own.

The Donna Anna of soprano Federica Lombardi was certainly the most gorgeously sung--I loved her "Non mi dir"--and played that I can remember.

Review: Splendid Singing, Erratic Direction Mark the Met's New DON GIOVANNI from Van Hove
Mattei, Lombardi. Photo:
Karen Almond/The Met

The character is usually pretty matronly, even when performed by younger performers; there was none of that in Lombardi's characterization, which made Giovanni's attraction to her understandable. She was simply ravishing and stronger conceptually on all counts.

In fact, van Hove's best addition to the work's action is that he's given the women some backbone; in fact, he's given all the characters more oomph than I ever remember, though Giovanni's as despicable as ever.

Even Anna's beloved, Don Ottavio, sung beautifully by tenor Ben Bliss, is not the typical wimp we usually get in this character.

Review: Splendid Singing, Erratic Direction Mark the Met's New DON GIOVANNI from Van Hove
Lombardi, Bliss. Photo:
Karen Almond/The Met

While he still might not have a chance of ending up with his tesoro, his love, in Bliss's portrayal it seems more her loss than gain. His two arias, "Dalla sua pace" and "Il mio tesoro" had more voice than usual--his instrument seems to be growing more and more--and immaculate breath control.

Soprano Ying Fang was bigger and bolder vocally than the usual ingenue Zerlina (even when given to a mezzo, which happens), the country girl who is tempted to cheat on her fiancée (understandably, in the dull-ish portrayal by baritone Alfred Walker). I've been hearing her since she was at Juilliard, and she keeps getting better and better.

Review: Splendid Singing, Erratic Direction Mark the Met's New DON GIOVANNI from Van Hove
Martinez, Plachetka. Photo:
Karen Almond/The Met

Giovanni's former conquest, Donna Elvira, has two of my favorite arias, "Ah, che mi dice mai..." and "Mi tradi," and though soprano Ana Maria Martinez pulled them off dramatically quite well, she sounded best when she didn't push too hard. Her more legato efforts, mostly in Act II, showed off the more beautiful aspects of her voice.

Bass-baritone Adam Plachetka gave a better than his usual Leporello, but I wished for more from him in the "Catalogue aria," where he goes down the list of Giovanni's conquests, country by country and van Hove didn't seem ready to help.

Certainly, no one was going to mistake him for Giovanni--not unusual in productions (except, perhaps, when Samuel Ramey and Justino Diaz switched back and forth in the two roles)--but that was another of van Hove's missteps that were rampant during the evening.

The mistaken identities, which abound in the opera, were just ignored, even when the female characters were looking straight at Giovanni or Leporello and should have easily seen that the singers in the roles had switched places. Elvira did not know Leporello wasn't the Don? (In other productions, capes helped the ruse.) Anna didn't know her undisguised attacker?

And Leporello and Giovanni not recognize Elvira, Anna and Ottavio--unmasked though the libretto clearly says "masked (maschere)"--when they are invited to the Don's palazzo? And what about the villagers who seemed to be older brothers left over from van Hove's WEST SIDE STORY? Did van Hove have something in mind--or just not care?

Review: Splendid Singing, Erratic Direction Mark the Met's New DON GIOVANNI from Van Hove
Lombardi, Bliss, Mattei, Martinez.
Photo: Karen Almond/The Met

The stark production, with sets and lighting (those shadows!) by Jan Versweyveld and mostly monotone costumes by An D'Huys, worked well, somehow not distracting from the music of another century. (I'd seen it before, when the production's co-commissioner, the Paris Opera, broadcast it during the Covid period; done in close-ups, it wasn't nearly as effective as it looked when filling the stage.) Christopher Ash's projections, specifically those for Giovanni's descent into Hell, with writhing bodies, were terrific; his justifiable ending worked better here than any I've seen. Choreographer Sara Erde also did effective work.

Hurrah for Stutzmann's debut and her command of the complex score. (And, of course, to Donald Palumbo's work with the chorus.) Any time the Met can put together a cast like this under a conductor like that, well, that's fine with me.

For more information about further performances of DON GIOVANNI, through June 2, please see the Met's website.



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