Expectations can play tricks with our opinions. When I bought a ticket for this Don Giovanni, starting only three hours after a complete performance of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, I was not still convinced that I would really use it: I’ve never had luck with Don Giovanni at the Met and there were just a couple of names in the cast that seemed to make it worthwhile. But I’ve made it and was surprised by how much I enjoyed it. If someone is responsible for my good impression, this is primarily Fabio Luisi, who offered an exemplary big-house Mozart performance, showing how flexible the Met’s opera violins can be, highlighting woodwinds as it should be and keeping the natural rhythmic flow, while using the power of a big orchestra to create the right theatrical effect. He also proved to be very attentive to his singers, helping them to make their best. For some members of the cast, this was more than providential – it was life-saving.
It is puzzling that, although this evening’s was far from being a dream team for this opera, it delivered the goods somehow. As a matter of fact, the problems were to be found more on the ladies’ side. I won’t deny that I was not very happy about the possibility of seeing Hibla Gerzmava as Donna Anna for the second time. Last time in Moscow was not truly compelling, and it was a good surprise to see how much she has developed this part since then. She still sounds hooty and hard-pressed when things get high and fast (and her dealing with coloratura is more a matter of resolve than of technical abandon), but her pronunciation of Italian language, her textual clarity and dramatic purpose are undeniably improved. She could more often than not produce Mozartian phrase of unusual purity and power and, whenever that happened, the effect was almost Golden Age standard. I don’t know if this was the influence of Luisi, but I noticed an effort to avoid pressing hard the tone (what invariably brought about what I called in Moscow a Mara Zampieri-ish hoot). If am not mistaken, the effort is paying off. Although Malin Byström’s soprano is becoming too smoky (not to say airy in a way that tampers with her ability to hold long lines without too many breathing pauses), her understanding of Donna Elvira’s mezzo carattere is very refreshing. And the fact that she sings her big aria in the original tone has unfortunately become something that one should praise these days. Serena Malfi’s high register is harsh and intonation can be iffy – and yet it is refreshing to hear a Zerlina that sounds earthy and who does not steal the show in “aristocratic” Mozartian poise. Paul Appleby, whose Belmonte early this year was a bit shaky, shows improvements too: his control of mezza voce was impressive. If only he could avoid unstylish portamento and the odd explosive high note, he could be an impeccable Don Ottavio. Simon Keenlyside was, for a while, the world’s favourite Don Giovanni – and he still can make a grand impression in the part. I had never seen Adam Plachetka before and I am glad I could hear his Leporello, not only the most compelling performance this evening, but one of the best I’ve seen in this role. His baritone is rich, large and, if it can be too grainy sometimes, it is pleasant in the ear – and he has amazingly (really – Caballé-sian) long breath. And he handles the text with perfect comedy timing, without clowniness and offering something really funny instead. Bravo. Matthew Rose too was a funny and vocally solid Leporello and Kwangchul Young sounded almost frighteningly dark as the Commendatore.
Michael Grandage’s production is traditional in concept and a bit dull visually, but if Spielleiter Louisa Muller was faithful to the concept (this was premiered in 2011), it is extremely well directed: sometimes one felt at a loss of which actor to follow, so interesting and dramatically coherent was everyone’s gestures and attitudes.