- Don Giovanni
We believe that eighteenth-century librettists preferred the term dramma giocoso, while composers preferred opera buffa. Both terms, however, essentially meant the same thing: a comic opera. Yet Don Giovanni, with its frequent appearances of exalted style and learned counterpoint, unflinching portrayals of debauchery and treachery, and remarkable evocations of the supernatural, seems worlds removed from, say, Baldassare Galuppi's Il mondo alla roversa.
How, then, does one balance the comic and the tragic in Don Giovanni? Various solutions have presented themselves since the opera's 1787 premiere. In her excellent study of the first two Da Ponte operas, Wye Jamison Allanbrook suggests that the chimerical style changes in Mozart's music suggest a dynamic tension between the two extremes: his Leporello, whose musical style shifts effortlessly from the most banal lower-class ditty to a near perfect mimicry of the music for the thoroughly noble Donna Anna and Don Ottavio, demonstrates how easily the servant can become a crude doppelgänger of his master; by contrast, Mozart's Handelian music for Donna Elvira signifies her age and anachronistic eccentricity (Wye Jamison Allanbrook, Rhythmic Gesture in Mozart: "Le nozze di Figaro" and "Don Giovanni" [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982], 201–7; 233–38). However singers (or directors) respond, their theatrical choices must be motivated as much by the (frequently silly) plot as by the music Mozart wrote for his characters, which is so richly detailed that they inevitably appear remarkably true to life.
The opening scene of this persuasive but not altogether satisfactory staging augurs a treatment more frank and visceral than usual. Leporello (Ketelsen) is bored but still appears shrewd and rakish; Donna Anna (beautifully portrayed by Poplav skaya) appears as a believable age and traverses her emotional range of fear, tenacity, and sadness with great facility. Most effective, however, is the confrontation between the Don (Keenlyside) and Commendatore (Halfvarson). In their duel, Don Giovanni easily relieves the older man of his sword, swiftly borrows a dagger from Leporello, and stabs the Commendatore brutally and without excessive melodrama. Then the Don watches him die with the sensual attention of a voyeur; he removes his mask in time for his foe to recognize him, and finally bestows a somewhat languorous kiss before commencing the attacca recitative. The particular combination of eroticism and depravity illustrates exactly how subversive Don Giovanni must have been in Mozart's time and how it remains so even now. [End Page 172]
This effect is only enhanced by Maria Björnson's set and costume design. The characters wear eighteenth-century clothing and move about in an extremely minimal set that looks like a gently curved, old wall made of tile with a statue of a Madonna embedded in the upper left-hand corner. The wall rotates for various scenes, sometimes revealing a staircase (and ultimately, the interior of the Don's palace), and Paul Pyant's stark but effective lighting tends to emphasize what the set design lacks as much as it illuminates what little there is.
Alas, for much of the rest of the production, the stage director (Francesca Zambello), the singers, or both seem to have difficulty deciding when they should be comic and when they should not. When Donna Elvira (DiDonato) first appears, she has all the resolve and righteous anger of Medea. In the following recitative, however, she quickly devolves into an unsympathetic, comic shrew that rolls her eyes and gesticulates like a bad vaudevillian. Although she appears less silly in "Ah, fuggi il traditor," she returns to her hyperbolic comic mode in the great quartet, "Non ti fidar, o misera," where it clashes sharply with Don Ottavio's (Vargas) and Donna Anna's observations on her noble bearing.
Leporello is almost always wholly and brusquely comic: he resorts...