The Metropolitan Opera has just opened a searingly erotic Don Giovanni, yet the New York Times has dismissed the new production for its “timidity.” Other members of the New York press corps are even more contemptuous. The New York Observer sneers that the “new Don Giovanni is worse than bad: it’s nothing.” And the New York Post calls the staging “dreck.” What has inspired such critical contumely? The riveting production is a faithful rendering of the opera’s music and libretto.

The struggle over Don Giovanni’s soul in Mozart’s opera is hardly more dramatic than the battle over the future direction of the Met. On one side is a press corps determined to push Met general manager Peter Gelb into conformity with European opera houses, where narcissistic updatings of opera plots are now de rigueur. On the other side is a performance tradition that tries to realize as fully as possible the composer’s intentions for his work. The violence of the critical reaction to the Met’s Don Giovanni suggests that the music press feels betrayed by Gelb, who sent out ambiguous signals about his plans for the opera house when he took over in 2006, and is thus cranking up the heat on him to follow the European fad of Regietheater (“directors’ theater”)—or else suffer ongoing critical assault.

The only “concept” behind British director Michael Grandage’s Don Giovanni is bringing out the crosscurrents of desire that surge throughout this overpowering masterpiece with as much clarity as possible. Grandage works through the accumulation of acutely observed detail, conveying passion with the flash of a glance or the fleeting touch of a hand. The action mostly plays out in front of a curved wall of balconies; during Leporello’s Catalogue aria, in which the servant tabulates his master’s thousands of international conquests, women bathed in soft chiaroscuro languidly fan themselves on each balcony like seaweed swaying in a warm ocean current. In an eerie visual echo of these stacked balconies and their sensual occupants, disturbingly faceless, hooded statues, recalling the Dijon Mourners, are arrayed vertically in the cemetery where Don Giovanni invites the dead Commendatore to dinner. The production’s gorgeous Spanish-inflected costumes, in earth tones and soft blacks and grays, suggest a landed aristocracy of aging, rather than growing, wealth. Grandage doesn’t accentuate the conventional buffo (comic) elements of the characters. Though the production certainly honors the score’s effervescent comic elements, it presents characters possessing the dignity of adult passions, more rounded personalities than, say, the clownish Masetto and cringing Leporello of Ferenc Fricsay’s 1958 recording with the Radio-Symphonie-Orchester Berlin.

It is of course the Don himself who most defines a production’s impact. Mariusz Kwiecien, who sizzled in the Met’s Don Pasquale last season, was scheduled to open the run, but a back injury during the dress rehearsal temporarily knocked him out of commission. Gelb then brought in Peter Mattei, already in town for the Met’s Barbiere di Siviglia, to take over the part after just two days of crash rehearsals, leapfrogging over Kwiecien’s understudy, Dwayne Croft, who reportedly sang well after stepping in at the dress rehearsal. A ruthless blow to Croft? Certainly. Whether the ends justify the means here, there is no question that in Mattei, the Met had a Don Giovanni of heroic power and self-confidence. (Kwiecien returned to the role on October 25.)

Mattei, a six-foot-four Swede, possesses the languorous stillness of a cheetah before the kill. In Don Giovanni’s great seduction duet, “Là ci darem la mano” (“There we will join hands”), Mattei reels in the peasant girl Zerlina, who has her back to him, with a perfectly shaped, endlessly viscous legato. When the mesmerized maiden finally reaches him, he softly buries his face in the crook of her neck, breathing the line “Là mi dirai di sì” (“There you will say ‘yes’”), and gently lifts off her white wedding mantilla, which he slings around his throat like a matador’s cape. Don Giovanni’s serenade “Deh, vieni alla finestra” (“Oh, come to the window”) proved the unexpected high point of the evening, thanks to Mattei’s enveloping tone and his astounding capacity to shape a melody. This simple canzonetta, delivered with an urgent sotto voce and slight catch in the voice at the words “Tu ch’hai la bocca dolce più che il miele” (“You, whose lips are sweeter than honey”), exemplified Mozart’s mysterious fractal geometry, whereby the smallest units of composition contain as much beauty as the largest.

Mattei’s seductive softness could instantaneously turn to steel. During the Act I finale in the Don’s ballroom, Mattei gracefully lays his hand on Zerlina, then grips her with shocking violence to drag her off stage. By the opera’s final scene, the Don’s polished manners have given way to animal savagery, as he stands on his dining table in an open tunic, his long hair loose about his shoulders, mockingly toasting women and wine and laughing at Donna Elvira’s plea that he repent. When the terrifying diminished seventh chord blares forth from the orchestra to signal the Commendatore’s entrance, Mattei buckles as if shot through the chest—but only for an instant, before regaining the erotic power of courage and defiance that will carry him to hell.

Sexual tension flowed among the other characters as well. Animal lust unites the peasant couple Masetto and Zerlina; Zerlina grimaces slightly when their friends separate them during the wedding chorus. As Leporello reveals to Donna Elvira Don Giovanni’s preference for young beginners during the Catalogue aria, he starts to lift her skirts with a predatory contempt, before pushing her away in disgust. Even the usually staid Don Ottavio and Donna Anna hover in a near-kiss before Donna Anna once again begs time to mourn in “Crudele! Ah no, mio bene!”

The Latvian soprano Marina Rebeka, making her Met debut, sang Donna Anna with exhilarating power and elegantly trilled Rs, hitting her high notes with gusts of sheer bravura and bringing supple elasticity to her recitatives. Contemporary directors routinely suggest that a sexually experienced Donna Anna enjoyed Don Giovanni’s bedroom assault. Rebeka made clear what is already obvious in the libretto and score: Donna Anna’s outrage at the attempted violation. “Or sai chi l’onore” (“Now you know who tried to steal my honor”) rang out with clarion fury. Tenor Ramon Vargas was an unusually self-possessed Don Ottavio, unlike the eunuchs who often populate the role. Vargas’s pianissimo in “Dalla sua pace” (“On her peace”) was riveting, and his ornamentation insightfully nuanced in “Il mio tesoro” (“My treasure”), though his voice was fading fast by the end of that final aria. Barbara Frittoli avoided the hysteria that can turn Donna Elvira into a cartoon figure; despite an occasional hard edge to her upper notes, she brought a touching compassion and vulnerability to “Mi tradi” (“He betrayed me”).

In tall boots and long, greasy locks, the dark-voiced Luca Pisaroni as Leporello was almost as virile as his master. He percussively shot out his abortive resignation from the Don’s service in “Notte e giorno faticar” (“Slaving night and day”). The resonant Australian bass Joshua Bloom captured Masetto’s anguish at being rendered impotent by the Don’s aristocratic privilege, even as he overflowed with desire for Zerlina. The young German soprano Mojca Erdmann thankfully did not simper as Zerlina; her flirtation with the Don seemed the product of self-confident good humor. Slovakian bass Štefan Kocán blasted the Commendatore’s final warnings to Don Giovanni with unwavering rectitude.

Conductor Fabio Luisi deftly navigated the score’s lightning-fast changes of mood and drove the work forward with a compelling, Early Music–inspired momentum—though he wisely stopped short of the supersonic speed attained by Rene Jacobs’s “Batti, batti” (“Beat me, beat me”) in Jacobs’s 2007 Don Giovanni with the Freiburger Barockorchester. The overture’s crescendi could have had more punctuation and volume, and some of the ensembles, unmatched in the repertoire in their breathtaking tautness, were a bit ragged. But Luisi’s ear for line—exemplified by the beautiful ritard and diminuendo which accompanied Mattei’s long, searching look into the dying Commendatore’s face—was impeccable.

The New York critics’ response to this nobly conceived production is emblematic of the most powerful political program in opera today. It is therefore worth examining that reaction in some detail. The New York Times’s Anthony Tommasini, ordinarily one of the paper’s most gifted critics, was the least vituperative of the attackers. “There is nothing particularly gripping about Mr. Grandage’s work here,” he yawned. What would have been “gripping”? Tommasini provided a clue: “There was some intriguing sexual tension in Giovanni’s roughhousing with his servant,” he wrote hopefully.

You can’t make this stuff up. Homoeroticism is, of course, virtually mandated in revisionist opera stagings. Never mind that there is not the slightest hint in Lorenzo Da Ponte’s libretto or Mozart’s music of any “intriguing sexual tension” between the compulsively heterosexual Don and his beleaguered servant. Nor is there any precedent for homosexual overtones in the rich Don Juan lore on which Da Ponte and Mozart drew. The gay theme is accordingly absent from Grandage’s staging as well. Giovanni throws Leporello to the ground and takes a knife to his throat without in any way conveying sexual attraction; if such ruthless alpha-male behavior now is sufficient to give rise to an alleged homoerotic subtext, then every action-hero movie also contains “intriguing” homosexual possibilities. Even if you are inclined to argue that that’s the case, it is a mark of cultural solipsism to assume that our present concerns were shared in the past. However much we might wish that previous generations were as enlightened as we are today, not all ideas are in currency at all times. It would have been utterly unthinkable within the conventions of eighteenth-century opera—heavily regulated by Church-aligned government censors—to have Don Giovanni aroused by Leporello or vice versa.

But the most hilarious aspect of the vendetta against the Grandage Don Giovanni is the critics’ double standards. After sniffing that the production is “disastrously dull, a non-event,” Zachary Woolfe complained in the New York Observer that it “ends up ignoring class almost entirely.” This is the same Woolfe, a regular freelancer for the Times, who wrote a 2,000-plus-word love letter to Gerard Mortier in July, calling this leading perpetrator of Regietheater “one of the most celebrated and bravest impresarios of our time, with provocative glory trailing him from Frankfurt to Brussels, from Salzburg to Paris.” Mortier virtually insists that opera settings be updated to modern times. But no modern setting can possibly preserve the class distinctions of the ancien regime; there is more commonality between Bill Gates and a fast-food worker than between a titled count and the savviest peasant in an absolute monarchy. A Nozze di Figaro that Mortier commissioned from Christoph Marthaler for Salzburg in 2001 (and remounted in Paris in 2006) even wrenched the action into a drab Communist-era Eastern European country—in name, at least, a class-free society—thus officially erasing the aristocratic hierarchies among the characters.

If Woolfe has ever objected to the historically ignorant, class-effacing updatings of Mozart by another Mortier pet—Peter Sellars—the record does not reflect it. In Sellars’s squalid demolition of Don Giovanni, the Don is a low-level criminal and heroin addict in Spanish Harlem, accompanied by another low-level criminal and heroin addict, Leporello, who supplies the Act I party in Don Giovanni’s house by looting a bodega and tossing its wares to the other pathetic characters. Needless to say, there is not a trace of aristocratic nobility left in this Don or his high-born peers, nor is there any gulf separating them from their servants and feudal tenants.

Woolfe’s claim that the Met’s Giovanni ignores class is as mystifying as his apparent belief that Regietheater stagings preserve eighteenth-century class relations. He grouses: “It is his class that allows Giovanni to steal Zerlina with impunity, in broad daylight; if that isn’t made clear, and it isn’t here, the whole thing seems absurd.” The Don’s aristocratic clout is made clear in the scene, even if that were all that allowed the theft. But of course it isn’t all; Giovanni’s magnetic erotic force, which the Grandage production shows in spades, also conquers Zerlina. Moreover, the Don hardly enjoys “impunity” for his failed seduction of Zerlina.

Woolfe also primly objects that Leporello mounts a distraught Donna Elvira during the Catalogue aria without eliciting a rebuke from her. Needless to say, this fleeting bit of physical stage business doesn’t even register on the Richter scale of sexual antics that Mortier has sanctified on the opera stage. It is in any case well within the long tradition of highly physical stagings of the aria. As for Woolfe’s complaint that the peasants at Zerlina’s wedding party don’t object when Giovanni enters their midst: they don’t in the libretto, either, nor would such a reaction be consistent with opera-buffa conventions.

Both Tommasini and Woolfe fault the Grandage production for its lack of a grand “concept.” Woolfe regurgitates Peter Sellars’s political boilerplate: the production shows “a blissful ignorance,” he writes, “of the aesthetic, political, and moral issues that mattered to Mozart and his librettist.” Tommasini complains that the staging has “no compelling point of view.”

Woolfe does not cite any examples from Mozart’s letters or Da Ponte’s memoirs of the “aesthetic, political, and moral issues” that the Grandage production allegedly ignores. We know comparatively little about how Don Giovanni was composed, but what’s clear from Mozart’s more well-documented composition processes, such as for Idomeneo, is his overriding concern with how an opera plays out dramatically on a stage. More than anything else, Mozart wanted these pieces to be successful as theater. That he also had a political agenda is an obsessive desideratum for the modern critic and director—but one that lacks documentary support. Regarding the “moral issues,” the Grandage staging leaves no doubt that Donna Elvira is terrified for Don Giovanni’s soul and forgives him, that the assault on Donna Anna was heinous, and that Don Giovanni is hell-bound.

Grandage’s “point of view,” as he described it in a panel discussion at the Met, is “compelling” enough: to discover what the opera meant for its 1787 audience, for whom damnation was real and hereditary privilege unyielding, and to communicate that world to a modern audience today. So what do these bored critics want instead? For starters, Christopher Alden’s 2009 Don Giovanni at New York City Opera, which Tommasini, in his review of the Met’s production, calls “striking, insightful . . . vivid . . . sexy, [and] modern,” and which Woolfe praises as “bold, dark, ambiguously modern.”

Once again, the double standards are remarkable. First, a taste of the Alden production. Here is Justin Davidson’s 2009 description from New York: the “hyperactive staging . . . pinballed between ludicrous gimmickry and clever musicality. . . . Characters stumble together, flop apart, cross paths at full tilt, embrace, grope, struggle, and dodge, all in a plain-gray set that could be a DMV, a church, or Purgatory. The costumes, too, are depression-colored, though they slip off nonchalantly enough. Instead of Don Giovanni’s exchanging his nobleman’s attire for Leporello’s servant fustian, the two hard-bodied men share a single shirtless suit. Alden builds on Giovanni’s libidinous tastelessness; he milks every thumping downbeat and ‘ah-ah’ vocalize for its R-rated potential, and in one moment of gross-out hilarity has the Don dribble soup on the coffin. (Don’t ask.)”

David Finkle provided further detail in his review for Theater Mania: “Those black, ladder-back chairs—which constitute most of Paul Steinberg’s stark set—are the keystone to Alden’s vision. As the overture ominously plays, the ensemble . . . enters solemnly to sit down in what resembles the black-paneled ante-room of a Northern European church. Above them, a neon cross blinks on as they wait like refugees gathered to await housing assignments elsewhere. Although the chairs are rearranged—and sometimes removed only to be brought back—none of the action takes place outside this bleak environment. . . . The singers spend a good deal of time falling to the floor, where they often crawl around. Or they spend an inordinate amount of time groping each other. In one scene, Giovanni makes graphic love to Donna Elvira’s maid. . . . Meanwhile for the scene when Giovanni orders Leporello to seduce Donna Elvira, Leporello enters bare-chested and in trousers, while the scheming Don sports a jacket over black briefs. Both [singers] have the kind of buffed physiques to sustain this directorial choice, but this beautiful opera shouldn’t come off as a cousin of Oh, Calcutta.”

Where to begin? Tommasini objects to the Met’s luscious costumes as “a little dull,” Woolfe calls them “bland,” and the New York Post’s James Jorden deems them “limp.” Apparently, however, plain modern costumes are just fine, so long as they come off easily—and suggest the intriguing possibility of sexual tension between the Don and Leporello. Tommasini, Woolfe, and Jorden all slam Christopher Oram’s curved balcony set for the Met production as boring and unimaginative. But “black, ladder-back chairs” are insightful and bold, when paired with modern anomie and sexual gymnastics.

What about “class” issues? Woolfe objects to Leporello’s fleeting grip on the prostrate Donna Elvira, but not, it would seem, to aristocrats crawling around on the floor and groping one another in Alden’s production. No more potent symbol of the “caro galantuomo” (“fine gallant”) exists than the sword; mastery of fencing was essential for the aristocratic male. Alden’s production ignored Da Ponte’s clear stage directions that Don Giovanni slay the Commendatore with his sword, however, and instead turned the Don into a World Wrestling Entertainment brawler. Here is Tommasini’s description of how the Don dispatches the Commendatore, from his 2009 review of the Alden production: “Giovanni smashes the old man’s head against the wood paneling, making a horrible smacking sound and leaving a splattered patch of blood.”

The agenda here is clear: the New York critics are aping the European press playbook to engineer a European-style takeover of the American opera stage. Only the Wall Street Journal’s Heidi Waleson took the Met’s Don Giovanni on its own terms, praising it for its “clear theatrical and musical point of view,” which, “combined with the excellent, committed cast, made for an illuminating and absorbing evening.”

History is repeating itself. This summer, the German and Austrian press launched an identical diatribe against a traditional production of Verdi’s Macbeth at Salzburg, one of the few remaining efforts in Europe to honor an opera’s score and libretto. Heresy, though rare by now on the European opera stage, must be punished. And several weeks ago, Tommasini faulted the Met’s new staging of Donizetti’s Anna Bolena on the same grounds: “The production, by the director David McVicar, is uninventive and safe,” he wrote. “The sets . . . are handsome and efficient but tamely traditional. . . . [The] costumes are colorful, detailed and true to the period. Too true. This Henry could have come from the set of almost any of the innumerable films and television shows that have been made about the Tudors.”

Anna Bolena has never been performed at the Met. Outside the house, the opera is no better known. If ever there were a case for “too true” (whatever that means) a fidelity to an opera’s original setting, it is when audiences don’t know a work. Set Anna Bolena among the followers of a polygamist sect in a Utah trailer park, say, and first-time viewers aren’t going to have a clue about what’s going on—even if it were the case that the original story weren’t compelling enough without directorial “inventiveness” and risk-taking.

The plight of the contemporary classical music critic is genuinely pitiable. Thanks to the criminal overrepetition of a ridiculously narrow slice of the classical repertoire, critics are understandably sated with the standard works. Regietheater stimulates the jaded critical palate with desperately needed novelty, however dearly purchased. Opera houses, however, have a responsibility not just to the press but to a wider audience. Grandage understands that fact. “It’s easy to forget that on any given night, most people are seeing an opera for the first time,” he said at the Met’s panel discussion. “If we can create something for the first-time opera-goer that is clear and thrilling, even if you come with great knowledge, you’ll see something new.”

Given the surprised peals of laughter that rang out in the Met at moments familiar to anyone who knows Don Giovanni—such as at the remaining characters’ future plans at the end of the opera—Grandage’s estimate of the audience was exactly right. But if a production as beautifully conceived as Grandage’s leaves a critic only with scorn, it may be time for him to strike out for new writing challenges. The solution to the overrepetition of the standard repertoire is not to torture familiar works with self-indulgent distortions, but rather to put on unknown works. Thousands of eighteenth-century operas that almost no one has heard for 200 years were critical in the evolution of the art form. Our understanding of Mozart would be enormously improved by better knowledge of Johann Adolph Hasse or Tommaso Traetta, for example. Stendhal reels off dozens of composers who held the opera stage before Rossini swept them all away; surely some are worth hearing, if only for the sake of historical perspective. The later nineteenth century also contains lodes of unknown composers, as well as forgotten works by known composers, that would relieve the tyranny of the opera warhorses.

The battle over Peter Gelb’s professional soul is still very much ongoing. It’s supremely difficult for an arts administrator to stand up to the kind of pressure now being exerted on him, even if he wants to. Audiences and donors, however, can offer some counterweight to the critics through the power of the purse. Time remains to decide for yourself whether the Met has honored or betrayed its mission with this surprisingly controversial new production: the opera runs through November 11, returns in February and March 2012, and will be broadcast live in movie theaters this Saturday and on November 16.


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