|Amitai Patti as Don Ottavio, Adela Zaharia as|
Donna Anna. Photos by Cory Weaver.
June 10, 2022
This production of Giovanni is the third in Michael Cavanagh's American House Trilogy, designed to cast a new light on the Mozart/Da Ponte operas, also including Marriage of Figaro and Cosi fan tutte. Figaro was set at the birth of America, Cosi in the Great Depression, and Giovanni in a post-apocalyptic era. This latter is the result of private greed and natural disasters - sadly, all too likely.
The setting provides many parallels to modern-day America. A womanizing oligarch wreaking havoc on society to feed his private obsessions? Say it ain't so! What's surprising is how, in the experience of the performance itself, there is a decided undertone of "meh." Considering the talent onstage (and the pyrotechnics), I found this curious, but I later realized that Cavanaugh's approach undoes something essential about Da Ponte and Mozart. These operas are comic, sometimes farcical, but they use their humor to smuggle in all kinds of profound, sometimes ugly truths (the noble class is not noble; pure fidelity doesn't exist; love is all about power). I am so found of this approach, in fact, that I use it as a touchstone for my novels.
Christina Gansch as Zerlina, Cody Quattlebaum
All that said, it feels like this production is simply trying too hard, a distinctly non-Mozartean trait. Which explains the feeling of "meh." We need more of the funny to whet the appetite for the heavy.
I am the last critic to disapprove of modified settings. In fact, I enjoy the approach, because it often brings out new aspects of masterful works. A fine example in this production is the throughline of Zerlina, the peasant bride being wooed away from her wedding by Giovanni. Soprano Christina Gansch sang and performed the part brilliantly, highlighting the treasure trove of music given to this single role: "La ci darem la mano," her duet with Giovanni, and the arias "Batti, batti" and "Vedrai, carino." These latter two share the theme of pain. In the first, Zerlina offers herself to her fiancee Masetto for painful punishment; in the second, she offers Masetto the healing qualities of love after he has been beaten silly by Giovanni. If you're following the "Fifty Shades" trail here, this leads nicely to a scene only included in the lesser-performed Vienna version of the opera, in which Zerlina threatens the captured Leporello with torture. Cavanagh accentuates the scene by affording her an electric chair and a collection of handtools worthy of the "Saw" horror franchise.
Nicole Car as Donna Elvira.
Vocally, the standouts were all female, especially soprano Adela Zaharia's heart-rending performance of Donna Anna's "Non mi dir." Soprano Nicole Car as Donna Elvira is a delight any time she opens her mouth, and also presents enough stylish outfits to fill a catwalk.
Baritone Etienne Dupuis and bass-baritone Luca Pisaroni are well-cast as the swaggering Don and his beleaguered servant Leporello, but the excessively earnest tone of the production seems to mute their interplay. There are exceptions that show the possibilities, particularly the de Bergerac-like scene in which Leporello dresses like his boss and mimes a serenade to Elvira as Giovanni supplies the vocals. At one point, Giovanni actually takes Leporello's limbs and uses him as a human puppet.
The person who really had the most fun was costume designer Constance Hoffman, for what is the post-apocalypse than a global thrift shop? The straight-laced Ottavio wears nothing but elegant business suits, while Giovanni sports an 18th-century waistcoat beneath his leather coat, and Leporello is clad in a street person's denim. Zerlina and her girlfriends wear the petticoat/vest combos of steampunk-Burning Man, while Masetto goes for overalls and plaid shirts. And then, for Giovanni's final banquet, a band of white-faced Mozarteans shows up, looking a little zombified.
Etienne Dupuis as Don Giovanni.
The final question for DG connoisseurs is always, "How are they going to drag the Don to hell this time?" Cavanagh's answer is "very impressively." The Commendatore is not the standard statue but a 24-foot-tall bust that cracks in two and swallows Giovanni amid a sea of flames, both real and projected. Yowza! (Set and projection design by Erhard Rom.)
Conductor Bertrand de Billy led his orchestra in a reading leaning on the legato, very smooth, befitting the nature of the production.
Through July 2 at War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco. $26-$408, 415/864-3330, sfopera.com. Proof of vaccine, picture ID and masks required.
Michael J. Vaughn is a 35-year opera critic and author of 26 novels, available on Amazon.com.