Monday, October 17, 2011

SFO's "Don Giovanni"

October 15, 2011

Italian film and theater director Gabriele Lavia makes a profound demonstration of what can be achieved with small, provocative touches. In a production using period costumes, Lavia bestows upon his Giovanni a pair of sunglasses, lending the rapscallion lover the aura of a rock star (in fact, to my companion’s eyes, the late blues/rock icon Stevie Ray Vaughan). The parallel certainly fits, since Giovanni is privileged by his noble status to get away with behavior that would get the rest of us thrown in jail. The production in general seems to bring out the element of classism, drawing a line from Giovanni to Count Almaviva of Figaro – and even between Figaro and Leporello, who sings a strident opening aria, “Voglio far il gentiluomo,” that bears a striking similarity to Figaro’s opening battle cry, “Se vuol ballare.” (Just to extend this game a little further, both operas use the running gag of their lotharios’ inability to land a fish, thanks to the blocking techniques of Cherubino and Donna Elvira.)

Lavia’s high-energy direction is aided greatly by Alessandro Camera’s set designs, a minimalist combination of layabout dining chairs and large flyaway mirrors. One scene proceeds directly to the next as the set shifts, cinematically, around the players.

Lucas Meacham, who appeared (aha!) as Almaviva in last season’s Figaro, does a splendid job of filling out the rockstar aura, playing Giovanni with a James Bond smoothness broken with sudden flares of temper. Vocally, he delivers a smoky baritone with the tender phrasing befitting a wooer of women. This shows itself primarily in the duettino with Zerlina, “Là ci darem la mano,” and in the lilting serenade to Elvira’s maid, “Deh vieni alla finestra.” Another of Lavia’s small touches is to bring up the house lights and have Giovanni sing the second half of said serenade to every single woman in the hall – which is, after all, his true target market. (Meacham also does a fine job with the faster end of things, in a list of orders delivered to Leporello in a stunningly rapid patter.)

Leporello is served to a T by bass Marco Vinco, who employs heaping portions of physical comedy and a facial dexterity on the level of Mr. Bean. (Da Ponte’s quips make the role an absolute prize. Answering his boss’s orders in the darkness after the duel with the Commendatore, Leporello inquires, “Who’s dead – you or him?”) Vinco knocks the immortal Catalogue Aria out of the park, and is absolutely hilarious while lip-synching Giovanni’s lines a la de Bergerac under Elvira’s balcony (assisted by, once again, the magic sunglasses).

Soprano Serena Farnocchia is picture-perfect as Elvira, the librarian who’s only had sex once and will never, ever let go. She sings with a suitably acerbic edge befitting the role, but dials it back for the tender lament of “Mi tradi.” Soprano Ellie Dehn (last season’s Contessa Almaviva), sings Donna Anna with a fetching evenness of tone, gracing the final, heartbreaking acknowledgement of her guilt, “Non mi dir,” with crystalline high pianos.

Faced with an even more conflicted character, tenor Shawn Mathey plays Don Ottavio with great sincerity and angelic lyricism, carefully tracing the emotional shifts of “Dalla sua pace.” As Zerlina, mezzo Kate Lindsey is just plain sexy, singing what I call the S&M Aria, “Batti, batti,” while using a garden bench as a horizontal stripper pole. Faced with such talent, Ryan Kuster’s likeable Masetto has no choice but to forgive all transgressions.

Bass Morris Robinson is superbly imposing as The Commendatore, and performs the cemetery scene so well that even opera veterans might be jolted when the statue begins to sing. I wish I could say the same for Giovanni’s elevator to hell. Although the trapdoor/white smoke approach is effective, I have not once in 25 years seen a Giovanni damnation that truly satisfies. Given the solid theatricality of the rest of this production, I suppose I expected better.

Especially given the preceding minimalism, the backdrop for the dining scene is a truly lavish sight: half-circle folds of plush red drapery rising to the heavens. I also enjoyed Andrea Viotti’s masquerade outfits for the Triumvirate of Vengeance, white ceramic masks topped by humongous powdered wigs.

Through Nov. 10, War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco. $21-$330, 415/864-3330,

Image: Marco Vinco (Leporello) and Lucas Meachem (Don Giovanni). Photo by Cory Weaver.

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