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Dark, funny, musically vibrant ‘Don Giovanni’ raises the curtain on new Lyric Opera season

Submitted by on Sep 29, 2014 – 5:06 pm

Mariusz Kwiecień as Don Giovanni and Marina Rebeka as Donna Anna in Mozart’s ‘Don Giovanni,’ production by Robert Falls at Lyric Opera of Chicago (Todd Rosenberg)Review: “Don Giovanni,” music by W.A. Mozart and libretto by Lorenzo Da Ponte at the Lyric Opera of Chicago; new production directed by Goodman Theatre artistic director Robert Falls. ★★★★

By Lawrence B. Johnson

A more appealing cast could hardly have been assembled for Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” than the vocally resplendent, good-looking singers who inhabit the Lyric Opera of Chicago’s new production and season opener.

And for the most part, Mozart’s opera – dramatically dark and musically brilliant — is well served by director Robert Falls’ heated and funny approach to this tale of the world’s most infamous sex addict, whose recklessness and hubris finally bring him all the way down and then some.

Ana María Martínez is Donna Elvira in Mozart's 'Don Giovanni' at Lyric Opera Chicago. (Michael Brosilow)Between designer Walt Spangler’s fetching Spanish sets and Ana Kuzmanic’s stylish 1920s costumes (a temporal relocation that Mozart surely would have adored), this “Don Giovanni” has an integrated look and feel that not only works but also allows for doses of broad, updated humor.

Baritone Mariusz Kwiecień is an irresistible Don Giovanni: Just ask the seduced and abandoned Donna Elvira, a fiery dame (soprano Ana María Martínez) who charges back into Govanni’s life on a three-wheel motorcycle.

Kwiecień commands the stage, an unrepentant roué empowered by his station in society and – as Giovanni humbly observes – resolved not to disappoint all the other women in the world by favoring one. Just as the baritone displays Giovanni’s patrician elegance in the so-called mandolin sereneade (“Deh, vieni alla finestra”) and his seduction of the peasant girl Zerlina (“Là ci darem la mano”), he also flashes this sociopath’s more brutal side when the tide turns against him. And then Kwiecień is scary.

Well matched vocally and theatrically, Kwiecień and Martínez make a scrappy pair as the sexually insatiable rake and the one woman – among the thousands he has conquered — who seems to have his number. While there’s a slightly droll edge to this modern Elvira, when the vocal chips are down, Martínez delivers – notably in Elvira’s tender, albeit conflicted rumination on the hell-bent Giovanni, “Mi tradi, quell’alma ingrata.”

Marina Rebeka as Donna Anna in 'Don Giovanni' at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, new production by Robert Falls. (Todd Rosenberg)No less rewarding in voice and presence is soprano Marina Rebeka as Donna Anna, who launches a manhunt for Giovanni after he first attempts to rape her, then shoots down her father, the Commendatore, in cold blood. The night offered no brighter moment than Rebeka’s soaring turn through Anna’s aria “No mi dir,” in which she asks her betrothed Don Ottavio for more time even as she reflects on her suffering – including the loss of her father — at the hands of Giovanni. Rebeka framed the sentiment with disarming honesty.

Speaking of honesty, hats off to tenor Antonio Poli for making a worthy man of Don Ottavio, Donna Anna’s devoted betrothed who often comes across as little more than a feckless wimp. To Ottavio’s big aria “Dalla sua pace,” Poli brought not only a burnished sound but the strength and conviction of a man who knows himself.

Plenty imposing as well was bass Andrea Silvestrelli’s resonant Commendatore. Loved his flower-laden grave site at the cemetery, too; one more memorable set from this production.

Zerlina (Andriana Chuchman) buys into the sweet lies of Don Giovanni (Mariusz Kwiecień) in Lyric Opera 'Don Giovanni.' (Michael Brosilow)Then there were those crazy country kids about to marry, Zerlina (soprano Andriana Chuchman) and Masetto (baritone Michael Sumuel) – she the latest object of Giovanni’s eye and he, well, in the way. Some of Falls’ most inspired staging centers on the tumultuous relationship between Zerlina and poor Masetto, who keeps taking it on the chin from Giovanni. Both sang well, Chuchman showing real sparkle in Zerlina’s two big arias, “Batti, batti, o bel Masetto,” and “Vedrai, carino.”

Which brings us to baritone Kyle Ketelsen’s wonderful Leporello, an intriguing doppelganger for Giovanni as the two singers are roughly the same height and build. Thus when Giovanni and his doughty servant actually switch into the other’s attire, and Elvira believes Leporello is her elusive lover, we buy into it, too. Ketelsen’s long-suffering Leporello is a delight, and his catalogue aria – in which the servant recounts for Donna Elvira the long and broad history of Giovanni’s conquests – is a peak moment even amid the vocal crests on display.

Leporello (Kyle Ketelsen) is always taking the blame for Don Giovanni in Mozart's comic opera at Lyric Opera of Chicago 2014. (Todd Rosenberg)Yet right out of the gate, Ketelsen was victimized by what proved to be director Falls’ determination to remove the veil of mere innuendo from Giovanni’s sexual exploits. As Ketelsen sang the opera’s opening aria, “Notte e giorno faticar,” lamenting how there’s no rest for the servant of a tireless womanizer, Falls lures our attention over the singer’s head to a struggle between Giovanni and Donna Anna in a lighted second-story window.

That, it turned out, would be a comparatively minor distraction. Time and again, Falls has Giovanni pawing – that is, fondling – some female while he or someone else is singing. I kept thinking back to director Calixto Bieito’s sexually graphic version of Tennesee Williams’ “Camino Real” at Goodman Theatre a couple of years ago. I found that egregious directorial style annoying then, but here it became downright vexing.

Notwithstanding Wagner’s advocacy of opera as the perfect Gesamtkunstwerk, where all the elements of story and staging and singing are merged into a unified art work, the plain truth is that the music – with all those painstakingly trained singers and instrumentalists – is the most important aspect of an opera. When sexual shenanigans create a distraction, when the music cannot command our whole attention and engagement, the operatic work and the performers and the audience are all misused.

Where such distractions did not raise their wooden heads, conductor Andrew Davis’ eloquent and expressive musical direction was greatly to be savored, as was a precise and buoyant performance by the Lyric Opera Orchestra. Add to that the exuberant yet disciplined singing by the Lyric Chorus and the last element was in place for a musically rewarding night.

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Donna Elvira, Don Ottavio and Donna Anna (Ana María Martínez, Antonio Poli and Marina Rebeka) adopt disguises to close in on Don Giovanni. (Todd Rosenberg)

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