High- and low-brow cultural goings-on in the Second City, brought to you by a roving microtechnoanthropologist

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Monday, October 04, 2004

Sic Semper Asoti

As is traditional, L and I cannot attend fully half of the operas in our subscriptions on our assigned dates. This included needing to exchange our Don Giovanni tickets for opening night.

I then promptly put the tickets "somewhere safe" where they remained as I ran around like a particularly inept, unfashionable headless chicken, hoping against hope that I'd actually remembered that the start time was 7:30 and not something funky, Wagnerian, and early. For once, fate was on my side, and I not only arrived at L's abodein good time to make the opera, but I was also fully clothed (albeit smelling faintly of cigarette smoke) and had the tickets with me. As a result of the exchange, we had marginally better seats than our usuals, although the price differential amuses, as it represented 3 rows forward and a skosh to house left.

I had been seriously looking forward to this one. I love Mozart pretty much without exception, but this is likely my favorite of all. With Bryn Terfel as the Don himself, there's very little missing (except for Renee Fleming as Donna Anna---but I have the recording for that). So I came prepped to love comprehensively and was miffed to have my love diminished by some punk ass set design.

Both the designer and the director natter on about minimalism, keeping within the spirit of the commedia dell'arte (something they might have brainstormed with the costume designer on if they'd decided to go for that---silvery taffeta frock coats look ludicrous next to battleship grey towers). In their favor, the essayist notes that the complexity of the staging delayed the opera's opening back in the day. Fine, no Mozarty opulence. I could have lived with reduced opulence.

Instead, what we got was a combination of depressing sets that looked as though they'd been scavenged from the rotten staging of Parsifal we saw a few years back (where we watched an entire act through the ass end of an animal pelvis on a giant scrim), and aggressively two-dimensional flats done horribly grimly colored faux finishes that seemed to be the result of the designer's girlfriend taking a Home Depot for Her course and deciding they needed more quality time together.

The graveyard was lousy. The monuments were so crowded together that they looked cluttered rather than imposing. The fact that everyone knows about the statue is no excuse for the egregious color mismatch between the Commendatore and the rest of them. And, for reasons I will never understand, the designer did the whole thing like it was taking place inside a diorama or an old cabinet-style television, with a low wall in front, joining up with an inset second proscenium.

The most egregious offenses, though, were the scenes in the interior of Don Giovanni's house itself. The raucous peasant dance was held in a close, dreary room with a faint, sloppy palm leaf design covering the back wall, like some kind of wilting, olive drab trompe l'oeil. Proscenium-high walls hemmed things in on the side, and a person-sized doorway in the back wall (which cut through the stage at center) made the room feel both claustrophic and cavernous. Once Leporello and Giovanni arrive to begin the dance, the wall at midroom slid away to reveal musicians clumped in an awkward semicircle upstage in between two dismal, cheap-looking screens with literal faded riverside trompe l'oiel.

The interior during the banquet scene was even worse. The walls were a nondescript beige (faux finished, of course) with dirty hospital green mouldings. The furniture and table setting were completely forgettable. The doorway in the back wall about an inch taller than Andrea Silvestrelli (the bass singing the Commendatore) and the unadorned cyc at the back wall of the stage (which was lit an incredibly unrealistic blue and chopped off by a low, black wall at the bottom). So the statue's entrance, one of the most harrowing scenes in opera when done right, had a ridiculous clown-car vibe.

There were a handful of elements in the set design that I liked, but even these were undermined by some other dumbass choice that undermined them. The first qualified success was the floor---the apron and main platform were done in broad wood-grained planks meant to serve as both outdoor walks and housefloors. After the first scene outside Donna Anna's home, when first see Don Giovanni on his own turf (the main square of the city, and later his house), the lighting was altered subtly to reveal irregular cracks scarring the very ground under his feet. These were the outlines of a jigsaw of traps that would lower one-by-one, sending Giovanni's possessions tumbling into hell ahead of him.

So, the foreshadowing was somewhat effective and, even though I knew it was coming, the opening of the first trap got me. However, to pull off the thing with the traps, the Commendatore can't be standing on any of them, right? So they have him climb up on the table. Um. What? The dude is like 7 feet tall already, there's a minute doorway behind him, and why is he standing on the fucking table anyway? And as if I haven't been taken out of the moment worrying about the solidity of the construction among other things, we then have another boneheaded decision about the epilogue.

Ok, so the epilogue is weird anyway. Where do you go from your anti-hero being dragged down to hell, giving repentence the bird and trying to corrupt the help all the while? Well it's a comedy, so we break the fourth wall and sing a merry tune. We get it. We definitely don't need to bring up the worklights, finally move aside the damnable, cramping side walls to unmask the central platfrom, and let us see the glowtape spikes. Feh.

A lot of the staging succeeded in spite of the icky design. Many of the big showcase arias and duets were staged on the apron in front of a midnight blue silky curtain. This certainly did keep things moving along while set changes were going on and ensured that none of the music was swallowed up by the set (I generously pass over the series of moth holes in the curtain through which the worklights shone).

Donna Anna's second act aria to Ottavio was given its much-needed intimacy by flying in a low wall about 2/3 the width of the stage and setting a simple piece of furniture in front of it. Warm light coming through two "windows" in the wall might have rendered the staging downright charming were it not for the fact that the damned wall was the color of dried blood and faux finished to boot. Get. Over. It. Wogerbauer.

The only real staging misfire was in the first scene where, once again, the front wall of Donna Anna's house cuts through at center, giving the cast only a smidge of real stage on the platform to work with. The Commendatore, being 7 feet tall as previously mentioned, is streteched with his feet still in the doorway, his head very nearly hanging off the top step that leads down to the apron. Anna is singing about how she'll surely faint and when she makes good on her promise, the servants are, of necessity, practically crawling up her ass as they exclaim over how they must run to help her.

Vocally, I must be truthful and admit that Terfel began a bit shakily, sounding strangely underpowered. However, it seems likely that this was partially due to the elaborate costume and mask in the first scene as Ottavio, Anna, and Elvira also seemed to suffer a bit from this when wandering around later in similar get ups. By the second scene, though, he was in magnficent form, and I pretty much could spend the rest of my days listening to him do Mozart recitativ accompanied by whomever the harpsichordist was. Ildebrando D'Arcangelo's Leporello was a joy to listen to alongside him. In fact, those two are pretty much an ideal duo for this opera, the difference in their sizes, style of movement, and physicality culminating magnificently in the comic serenade to Elvira in the second act.

And speaking of Elvira, I think everyone save Susan Graham should just pack up and head home regarding that role. Her voice, her look, her presence, her timing---everything was just ideal. If there was any flaw in her performance, it might be that she sparkled so much that Karita Mattila's Donna Anna seemed even drier and more severe in comparison.

In reading the Sun Times review, I see that Mattila was out for opening night and Erin Wall sang the role. Having seen her Marguerite last year, I'm a bit disappointed that I didn't get so see her Anna. She's a much more approachable, down-to-earth vocalist and actress than Matilla. Which is not to say that I disliked Mattila's interpretation. She has a strong, excellent voice and clearly has the chops for the role. I'm surprised, though, at how recently she's been known for singing Pamina in Die Zauberflote, because both her voice and her manner tend distinctly toward the icy. Sandwiched between Graham's warm, sympathetic Elvira and Isabel Bayrakdarian's completely charming Zerlina, she was sort of absorbed by her mourning garb.

And speaking of Bayrakdarian, I was shocked by how polite and underwhelmed the applause for her was. TWMiTU commented (probably correctly) that she sounded a bit think beside Graham and Mattila, but for my money, the purity and sweetness of her voice more than made up for it. She's also incredibly charismatic and has a real knack for the comedy of that kind of Mozart role, best exemplified during Batti, batti, o bel Masetto. Taking a piece that has your ingenue begging her new husband to beat her for her near sins and making it funny and charming is a tall order. In this case, Masetto was sitting grumpily on the top of the steps while Zerlina on all fours headbutts him repeatedly, a move familiar to cat and sheltie owners alike.

I've always thought it strange that the seemingly more mature, more serious Ottavio is written as a tenor, while Masetto is a baritone. Kurt Street got a well-deserved standing ovation for his Ottavio, but I always wonder about his hair-tearing numbers juxtaposed with Donna Anna's persistent disinterest, which here was exacerbated by Mattila's self-possession.

I'd never heard Kyle Ketelsen before and Masetto was a great role to start with. He played extremely well off his Zerlina physically, and their voices matched well. Verdrai, carino, staged on the apron at down right was a real pleasur to both see and hear.

It's hard to imagine a better Commendatore than Andrea Silvestrelli, whose bass is so penetrating, you can feeling it quite literally in the first balcony. It's just a shame that his scenes were, without exception, botched in terms of the set design.

I sound very discontented, which is far from true. Musically, this could hardly have been better. It's just a pity that the set design did a disservice to everything from the acting to the costumes.

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