Chicago Opera Review: DON GIOVANNI (Lyric Opera)

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by Barnaby Hughes on November 17, 2019

in Music,Theater-Chicago

A CAUTIONARY TALE FOR THE #METOO ERA

When this production first premiered at Lyric Opera in 2014, opening the company’s sixtieth anniversary season, I noted how much Chicago loves Don Giovanni. Its popularity seems to have formed the foundation of the company, which made the Mozart opera its first production back in 1954 and has been revived over and over ever since. Yet, perhaps that popularity is coming to an end? Contemporary audiences have become sensitized to sexual violence like never before. And let’s be honest, Don Giovanni is a sexual predator, rapist, and a murderer. One has to look extremely hard at the story to find anything of redeeming value in it. Of course, Mozart’s score continues to be utterly delightful. The question remains: is that enough?

As with Dead Man Walking (playing in rep with Don Giovanni), this begins with a rape and a murder and ends with an execution. Unlike the former opera’s Joseph De Rocher, the eponymous antihero murders not the woman he rapes, but her father, who returns from the grave to exact his revenge. Before that happens, however, Giovanni gains quite a number of lovers and enemies, which in his case are not mutually exclusive categories. There is his rape victim Donna Anna and her fiancée Don Ottavio; Donna Elvira, one of his abandoned conquests; and the peasant Zerlina, seduced away from her fiancée Masetto on her wedding day. (Zerlina, it should also be noted, invites Masetto to beat her for her perceived infidelities.) Through all these escapades, Don Giovanni’s servant Leporello acts as an accomplice of sorts — fully aware of his master’s faults, yet seemingly powerless to stop him or to abandon him.

Director Robert Falls’ interpretation of Mozart’s opera has aged little, if at all, in the ensuing five years. His transposition of its early modern setting into the 1920s gives it a fresher feel without completely uprooting the action from its native Spain. The overall look remains quite traditional, however, despite Donna Elvira’s motorcycle and the neon bar sign. Walt Spangler’s sets are beautiful and effective, especially his setting of Act II, Scene II in a cavernous church interior whose statuesque Virgin Mary provides an interesting comment on and contrast to the sinful acts being discussed and debated under her pitiful gaze. Ana Kuzmanic’s male costume designs are rather classic, with a bit of added flair for Don Giovanni, but her designs for women are cartoonish, particularly Donna Elvira’s mannish motoring outfit and red hair.

What separates Lyric’s revival from its original is the entirely new cast of fine singer/actors and the presence of James Gaffigan on the conductor’s podium. The cast is led by Lucas Meachemas the titular don. (American bass-baritone Ryan McKinny from Dead Man Walking will portray the title role December 3-8, replacing the previously announced Davide Luciano, who has a torn muscle and can’t make his Lyric debut.)  Last seen at Lyric in Berlioz’s Les Troyens (2016/17), lyric baritone Meachemas has a part worthy of his considerable talent. For even though his character is completely amoral, he manages to keep him from becoming a caricature. Much of what we learn about him is imparted by Matthew Rose’s Leporello; his beautifully clear and sonorous bass proves equally at home with the fast rhythmic lines in comic arias such as “Madamina, il catalogo è questo.”

Another Lyric favorite is Ryan Opera Center alum Amanda Majeski as Donna Elvira, last seen as the magnificent Marschallin in Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier (2015/2016). Some of her character’s more angry arias (e.g. “Ah! chi mi dice mai”) don’t seem like the best fit for her voice, which excels in more lyrical roles, though her introspective Act II, Scene III aria “In quali…Mi tradi quell’alma ingrata” is sublime.

The rest of the talented cast are all newcomers to Lyric Opera: American soprano Rachel Willis-Sørensen as Donna Anna, Chinese soprano Ying Fang as Zerlina, American tenor Ben Bliss as Don Ottavio, American bass-baritone Brandon Cedel as Masetto, and Finnish bass Mika Kares as Il Commendatore. Of these, I’d like to single out Ms. Fang and Mr. Bliss. The former’s exceptionally pretty and florid voice is displayed superbly in the tenderly moving aria “Vedrai, carino.” Bliss’s Don Ottavio is perhaps the opera’s most sympathetic character, who shows nobility and loyalty, especially in his romantically heroic aria “Dalla sua pace,” which nearly brought down the house.

For this revival of Don Giovanni, Lyric has assembled an outstanding cast that is even better than the previous one in 2014. Yet, while the production and story remain the same, the times have not, rendering this opera a difficult one to stomach. In this sense, any future productions would need to be handled differently, if at all. There definitely are many questionable operas in the standard repertoire; some marred by racism, others by Orientalism and misogyny. Don Giovanni is undoubtedly one of them. Is it time to scrap these and update the operatic canon..?

photos by Kyle Flubacker

Don Giovanni
Lyric Opera of Chicago
Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Drive
ends on December 8, 2019
for tickets, call 312.827.5600 or visit Lyric Opera

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

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