An Italian Jewish priest who ended up selling vegetables and teaching at Columbia University before he died in New York in 1838 is the real star of the new production of Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” at the Metropolitan Opera.
That would be Lorenzo Da Ponte, whose libretto about a doomed Spanish stud is still funny almost 225 years after he knocked it out for the cheering people of Prague.
The Met audience was similarly amused, though I suspect most of us aren’t particularly fluent in Italian.
Yet thanks to those surtitles (nicely translated by Cori Ellison) that gleam on seat backs, the laughs kept coming even so.
If only the stage action were as witty.
Michael Grandage, a noted British theater director, is making his Met debut with this show -- Mozart’s greatest opera and a rather big bone for an opera neophyte to chew on.
As you’ve noticed, the hiring of theater directors for operas they invariably find befuddling is very chic at especially the Met and London’s ENO.
I liked Grandage’s strangely comic “King Lear,” and many of his productions at the Donmar Warehouse in London. It is kind of embarrassing to see someone of his stature struggle so.
His conventional staging injects little personal insight, comedic fantasy or dramatic edge.
Maybe he could have warmed up to the operatic challenge with something more modest, say Mozart’s youthful “La Finta Semplice,” about a moron, or maybe a minuet?
Mozart called his masterpiece a “dramma giocoso” -- a comic tragedy.
That strange tension makes the piece so intriguing and also hard to stage.
The clever story melds Da Ponte’s affection for maids, his friendship with Casanova and the Spanish Don Juan legend.
After making his escape from the bedroom of Donna Anna and murdering her annoying father, Don Giovanni flits through town, bumps into another old girlfriend, Donna Elvira, tries to bed a peasant girl, parties like a madman, invites a statue to dinner, refuses to repent and finally goes to hell.
At the climax, a few feeble flames from gas jets provide all the excitement of a backyard barbecue gone terribly wrong.
The streetscape by designer Christopher Oram, another Met newcomer, restricts the singers to a shallow area by the orchestra pit, but it thankfully splits open now and again for a scene change.
There is a hypnotic glimpse of balconies filled with the girls the Don abandoned all over Europe (1,003 in Spain alone, according to his weary manservant, Leporello).
Paule Constable lit the scene beautifully, though the brown tonalities are wearying after an hour or so. Don’t they use a lot of whitewash in Seville?
The singing was variable, astonishingly so for the Met. Peter Mattei was the long-limbed, silky-voiced seducer, stepping in for Mariusz Kwiecien, who injured his back during the dress rehearsal.
In an unexpected way, Mattei’s confident appearance revealed the strength of the production: It is so generic, anyone who knows the score, and he does, will fit right in.
Mattei’s scenes with the amiable Luca Pisaroni had the goofy, hey dude spirit that typically flourishes between Giovanni and Leporello.
Never mind Ramon Vargas’s stylish delivery, Don Ottavio was, as usual, excruciatingly dull. Mozart and Da Ponte made him so, poking fun at a dutiful fool, the anti-Don Giovanni, who keeps it zipped, forever waiting for Donna Anna, who yearns for the tall sexy baritone and not the small tenor.
She is a star: Marina Rebeka, a handsome Latvian soprano making her Met debut. Her voice is bright and flexible and for all I know she can act -- we will have to await another appearance. She certainly nailed Anna’s arias.
The two peasants were really adrift: Mojka Erdmann as Zerlina and Joshua Bloom as her boyfriend Masetto.
Barbara Frittoli hung around as Donna Elvira, singing without much passion. Her furious entrance -- “I will cut out his heart!” was tediously staged by Grandage as a walk-on with maid.
Get that woman a donkey cart! Or how about bringing on the wolfhounds who enlivened a boring scene in the Met’s opening night “Anna Bolena”?
Frittoli wasn’t helped either by Fabio Luisi’s lax conducting. The first act seemed awfully long. Things got better musically all around as we hurried through Act II and the end when Da Ponte sent us out laughing.
After murder, mayhem, suicide and athletic sex, the six remaining singers tut-tut briefly about the awful Don Giovanni, and then merrily address the future. We’re off to dinner! says Masetto, holding Zerlina. I am going to a convent! opines Elvira. I need to heal my heart a while longer, sings Donna Anna to the crushed Don Ottavio.
“Don Giovanni” runs until Nov. 11, returning in February. Information: +1-212-362-6000; http://www.metoperafamily.org.
(Manuela Hoelterhoff is executive editor of Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)