Despite all the unfamiliar names and unknowns in the cast, Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” is getting sparkling performances at the S.F. Opera, among the most inspiring encountered in our regular SFO visits since 1960.
The greatest difference with earlier times is in the acting and stage direction. Circa 1949 rehearsing the title role here, Met star Ezio Pinza called to the stage director, “Canto cui?” (Do I sing here?). Whereupon he planted his feet firmly and launched into his aria.
We have progressed eons since then in theatrical sophistication, with singers meticulously trained in drama. When now Zerlina, last seen waltzing off with Giovanni, returns to her incensed fiancé Masetto, she flirts and cajoles him, ultimately showing her warm-hearted, well-grounded devotion.
Where in years past both Masetto and servant Leporello were stupid bumpkins, they’ve progressed. In fact the latter, played by the savvy bass Erwin Schrott, adroitly pairs off with the wronged Zerlina and Elvira to separate them from the herd while steering them toward, presumably, Giovanni’s bed. This Leporello I think could beat you at cards or sell you an S.F. bridge or two.
Similarly, Giovanni himself (bass Ildebrando D’Arcangelo) is recast, still within the context of that irresistible score and Da Ponte libretto. He is now less swashbuckler than an older Lothario, still trying to recapture the old magic despite the growing years.
And Elvira (soprano Ana Maria Martinez) , so often the butt of humor, is a plausible fashionable woman you could sympathize with. Even the nebbishy boyfriend of Donna Anna, Ottavio (tenor Stanislas de Barbeyrac) becomes more plausible played by a younger man. As his main role is showing a there-there hand-holding sympathy to the lady, it’s the trickiest part of all to bring off.
Robust and true-to-score singing marked the opera, heard June 13. If young soprano Sarah Shafer is hardly the loudest singer, she was a superb actor with charm. The habile D’Arcangelo played the Don with a flourish, though for the Champagne Aria and the Mandolin Aria he had neither champagne flute nor instrument. Playing the heroine Donna Anna, Erin Wall was edgy and slightly sharp near the start, altogether understandably, as she was indisposed but agreed to sing anyway. The plucky Canadian blossomed into a supreme and regal spinto soprano by act two.
The ensembles under leadership of newcomer conductor Marc Minkowski were exquisite.
For more than 250 years on world stages, the tale of the cavalier Don Juan getting away with murder (at least for the first three hours) was most popular for the ambulatory statue of the slain Commandatore. He returns from the cemetery as a walking/singing “marble” statue to drag the seducer Don off to the hellfires. A stone-coated Andrea Silvestrelli brought this off, though the ensuing video projections looked more like Yosemite Falls than any hellfires encountered of late.
This go-round with the opera conflates the original Prague and Vienna versions and uses the SFO’s 2011 mounting with revisions, plus deft new stage direction by Jacopo Spirei.
The production is visually spartan and distasteful for any one expecting four-century-old scenes of Seville, Spain. The main scenery is a set of huge retractable “mirrors” on which videos are projected now and then.
Were the clothes taken at random from a costume shop? While Giovanni’s outfit is frilly and appropriate to early times, Elvira’s get-up suggests Mme. Bovary of 19th-century France.
The production flies past in three hours 20 minutes, with one intermission….The run ends June 30 with a free simulcast at the AT&T baseball Park on a jumbo screen in deep center field….This is the 23rd season that the 94-year-old SFO has staged the ever-popular “Don Giovanni” which, for the first three hours, relishes his profligacy with jaunty humor before the speedy finale condemnation.
Mozart’s comic opera “Don Giovanni,” in Italian with supertitles, by the S.F. Opera, Opera House, S.F. For SFO info: (415) 864-3330, or go online.