Don returns but 'Giovanni' ails

The star, fresh from a back injury, couldn't elevate the Met's production.

Posted: October 27, 2011

Offstage operatic drama sometimes eclipses the onstage seduction, death, and redemption. So it is with the Metropolitan Opera's new production of Don Giovanni, in which the title-role baritone, Mariusz Kwiecien, seemed headed for significant artistic consolidation in this new production but ended up on the operating table with a back injury suffered in dress rehearsal.

On Tuesday, he heroically returned in time to be reoriented before the high-profile HD simulcast that will take place at 12:55 p.m. Saturday at six area theaters, and, it's hoped, reclaim the success that Peter Mattei had in his absence.

Publicly, Kwiecien has discussed his return as a matter of responsibility: He was, after all, the first-cast choice for the production's opening. And how often do baritones have the title role?

"This isn't reviewable," complained one critic on Tuesday, referring to the inevitable sympathetic applause that was bound to greet Kwiecien for showing up.

I'll review it anyway.

Saturday audiences will naturally get a different show and most likely a better one, since Tuesday's Act I was a case study in anxious professionalism. All did their jobs without much interaction.

Conductor Fabio Luisi took such fast tempos that orchestral coordination in the overture was iffy; Kwiecien could barely keep up in the hard-driven "Champagne" aria. Other characters arrived, sang, and exited; the opera's inner story was nowhere to be found. La Boheme works under those circumstances, but if Don Giovanni is rendered without inside-out conviction, it becomes a senseless, redundant series of seductions - though with some of the greatest music Mozart ever penned.

The Michael Grandage production has two strengths: simplicity and a plot-enhancing Victorian-era setting that accentuates the amorality of the compulsively seducing title character. The look is Old Europe, the main scenic element a multitiered network of balconies in which women appear, first to illustrate the inventory of conquests in the servant Leporello's "Catalogue" aria and later giving Don Giovanni somebody to sing to in his Act II serenade "Deh vieni alla finestra."

Unadorned productions look best on screen, but I hope that wasn't the impetus for Christopher Oram's design. Even when the balconies broke apart to reveal the ghost world in a rear-stage network of arches, the production hadn't a fraction of the imagination that Christopher Alden brought to the piece at New York City Opera in 2009.

Also absent was charisma. Though Kwiecien is considered a "bari-hunk" in some circles, I've never seen it. And though his singing is intelligent, his characterization is animated, and his movements are seemingly unfettered by his recent back problems, he projected little magnetism.

Other cast members - Marina Rebeka as Donna Anna, Barbara Frittoli as Donna Elvira, Luca Pisaroni as Leporello, and especially Mojca Erdmann as Zerlina - were polished, capable, and had rich-toned moments. But the only cast member who approached great singing was Ramon Vargas in the often-thankless role of Don Ottavio, though his vocal passagework was strangely tentative and smudgy.

It's here that one most felt the absence of James Levine. Luisi is one of the better conductors around (especially in symphonic repertoire) and projects Mozart in engagingly lean, swift ways. But so many singers never glossed over so many details with Levine in the rehearsal room and then in the orchestra pit. Also, Levine's ability to create a sense of ease in performing situations might have allowed singers to interact in ways that happened Tuesday only in Act II, and then minimally. Whatever the current state of Levine's health, he's worth waiting for.


Don Giovanni

The Metropolitan Opera production of Mozart's Don Giovanni will be simulcast at six area movie theaters, including the Riverview Plaza, University City 6, and IMAX King of Prussia. For information on locations and tickets: www.fathomevents.com/performingarts/event/dongiovanni.aspx.

Subsequent live performances at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York are Monday, Thursday, Nov. 7, 11, 21, 24, 29 and Feb. 21, 24, 29, March 3, 7, 10, 14 and 17, 2012. Information: 212-362-6000 or www.metoperafamily.org


Contact music critic David Patrick Stearns at dstearns@phillynews.com.

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