Don Giovanni

The Metropolitan Opera on Friday, October 10.

There’s been a lot of talk about opera companies taking looks as well as vocal abilities into account when making casting decisions. Our collective fixations being what they are, the talk tends to focus on women and their weight, but if we must obsess about the issue, we probably should broaden the conversation. I know I couldn’t help notice that while the female leads in the Met’s Don Giovanni were extraordinary, Don Juan himself was only okay—at least when it came to the arias. He rocked a Harlequin-style mane and torso to convincing effect.

I don’t want to overstate the case. Erwin Schrott was fine, but in comparison to Susan Graham (Donna Elvira) and especially Krassimira Stoyanova (Donna Anna), his projection was inadequate and his musicality lackluster. Nonetheless, he gave an entertaining performance, not just looking the part but acting it quite well. Aside from his hammy closing scene, he was the finest actor on stage by a wide margin, so more than anything else, this Don Giovanni impressed upon me how difficult it is to find an outstanding actor and an outstanding singer together in a single outstanding package.

I particularly liked how Schrott didn’t shy away from what a poor excuse for a human being Mozart’s Don Giovanni is. He’s not a charming rogue, he’s not a passionate hedonist, he’s not a brave iconoclast; he’s a near sociopath, casually cruel and completely indifferent to the human wreckage he leaves in the wake of futile efforts to relieve his boredom. Everything about Schrott’s body language suggested a beguiling veneer masking deep contempt—a fascinating portrayal.

But he could be funny, too, though. I laughed out loud at the moment in which Don Giovanni realizes that the distraught woman he’s trying to seduce is actually Donna Elvira, whom he already has seduced and who is, in fact, distraught over his betrayal. Schrott’s double-take and momentarily panicked backward step were perfectly timed.

Yet this is opera; it’s the music that really matters, and too often, the orchestra swallowed Schrott’s muddy voice. His best vocal moment came during the simple mandolin-accompanied ballad in the second act. The musical highlights of the productionas a whole were Graham’s or Stoyanova’s arias. Graham executed the acrobatics of “Ah, fuggi il traditor” beautifully, but she didn’t need showy passages to impress. With its warm, yearning tone, her voice needed no adornment. And Stoyanova proved herself a master of dynamics. She could bring her clear bell down to a hush that made you hold your breath, not because you couldn’t hear—every note carried through the hall—but because it was just that lovely.

Seeing an unimpressive Giovanni disappointed me, but his being overshadowed by the female characters amused me. I’ve never known what to make of Don Giovanni, mainly because I know that my readings of those female characters are hopelessly contemporary. I simply can’t see Anna and Elvira and Zerlina the way Mozart’s original audience would have, which probably is one of the reasons that the story makes so little dramatic sense to my modern eyes. I want the women to triumph over Giovanni in a way that Mozart and his librettist, Lorenzo Da Ponte, never quite allow them to do, so perversely, I was kind of tickled that, in this production, in a way, the women come out on top.

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