Review: At the Met, a new 'Don Giovanni' has a stark vitality

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Review: At the Met, a new 'Don Giovanni' has a stark vitality
Ying Fang, bottom left, as Zerlina and Peter Mattei, center, as Don Giovanni in Ivo van Hove’s new production of the opera “Don Giovanni” at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, April 28, 2023. An excellent cast brings heat to Ivo van Hove’s austere, agile staging of Mozart’s classic, starring Peter Mattei and conducted by Nathalie Stutzmann. (Sara Krulwich/The New York Times)

by Zachary Woolfe

NEW YORK, NY.- When Ivo van Hove’s new production of “Don Giovanni” begins, tendrils of smoke rise off the pavement onstage — as if hell is already simmering underneath, ready to drag down the dissolute seducer of the title.

Even though his staging dresses centuries-old characters in contemporary clothes and sets them in a courtyard of recognizably modern (if eerily anonymous) architecture, it’s clear that van Hove believes in good old-fashioned damnation. He is willing to embrace, however austerely, the supernatural side of this Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart classic, its surreal theatrical conventions.

Known for his plain, harsh adaptations of plays such as “A View From the Bridge” and “The Crucible,” van Hove doesn’t strain in his new production, playing at the Metropolitan Opera, to prove all the plot’s deceptions, maskings, misrecognitions and ghosts. If someone says he is someone else, the other characters simply accept that, even if he is obviously still himself.

We are in the real world, the staging suggests, but we are always suspending disbelief.

Having opened Friday after originating in 2019 at the Paris Opera, van Hove’s work is smooth, flexible and agile enough to walk the tightrope of any successful “Don Giovanni”: not stinting on the work’s darkness, depth and strangeness, on one hand — and, on the other, not snuffing out its wit, even silliness.

That’s easier said than done, and “Don Giovanni” — long, circular, slippery — is one of the hardest assignments for an opera director, with attempts tending to fall into either unremitting dreariness or irritating glibness. Three successive productions at the Met, introduced in 1990, 2004 and 2011, failed to win much love from critics or audiences.

The most recent, directed by Michael Grandage, was especially cluttered and fusty. Compared with that, van Hove’s staging is, even with the ominous wisps of smoke hanging around, a breath of fresh air, featuring an excellent cast and conducted with unexaggerated vitality by Nathalie Stutzmann.

The set, designed by Jan Versweyveld, surrounds a court with looming concrete buildings that shift and rotate almost imperceptibly, so that you can never quite get a handle on the spaces. The lonely facelessness of the facades evokes the paintings of Giorgio de Chirico and Edward Hopper; lurking staircases nod to the winding labyrinths of M.C. Escher; and some arched openings suggest the Palazzo della Civiltà Italiana in Rome, a symbol of Benito Mussolini’s fascist regime.

So, this world is stark and unfriendly from the start — lit (also by Versweyveld) in various shades and from various angles, all chilly, and with costumes (by An D’Huys) as gray as the buildings.

But for all the severity, the heat of emotion pulses among the lives of the troubled people onstage, who cling to one another one moment before pushing one another away the next — embracing, then running.

That is the modus operandi of Don Giovanni, the vaunted libertine whose murder of the father of a woman he is attempting to rape sets the plot in motion. Nearly 60, baritone Peter Mattei still looks and sounds strikingly youthful in the title role.

But there’s a sense here that Giovanni’s appetites, however endless, have over the years settled into a kind of calm routine. This isn’t a harried, desperate or raging take on the character, or even, inversely, a particularly bored one, and the zestier moments, such as “Fin ch’han dal vino” (the “Champagne Aria”), were the only times Mattei sounded uncomfortable Friday.

Those moments didn’t really work dramatically, either, since his Giovanni isn’t zesty, but rather pretty serene and matter-of-fact, mostly sober but a little wry, temperamentally gray — if still a practiced, persuasive romancer.

In the character’s long, tempting lines when he is on the make, Mattei’s tone is buttery yet airy, as irresistible as it was when he first sang this role at the Met 20 years ago. His duets with soprano Ying Fang, a delicate yet sexy Zerlina, her voice bright but its edges softly rounded, slowed time almost to hypnosis.

Soprano Federica Lombardi, a stylish Donna Anna, here almost as sensual a figure as Giovanni, lacked the grounded core to her tone that would add more fullness and creaminess to it, but she made a penetrating, accurate, often exciting sound, particularly in confident high notes. Pressed to, but not beyond, her limits in “Mi tradi,” soprano Ana María Martínez was sympathetic without missing the ridiculousness in the pleading dignity of hapless Donna Elvira, her voice warming through the performance.

Sounding sturdy as Leporello, Giovanni’s manservant, bass-baritone Adam Plachetka was less satisfying playing neutrality than was Mattei. Plachetka appeared to want to be doing more than van Hove gave him, and so took on an edgy restlessness that seemed unintentional.

Poised and passionate through all Mozart’s unforgiving writing for Don Ottavio, tenor Ben Bliss added assertive ornaments in the repeated sections of his arias. It was a way of giving his character some more complexity than usual, but came off as odd because such ornamentation was rare among the rest of the cast. Bass-baritone Alexander Tsymbalyuk was a suavely commanding Commendatore; bass-baritone Alfred Walker, while plausibly aggrieved as Masetto, sounded faded.

Stutzmann, music director of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, is making a splashy Met debut with not one but two new Mozart stagings; Simon McBurney’s “Die Zauberflöte” opens May 19.

The orchestra sounded polished for her, weighty without being too heavy, the winds beautifully present in the textures from the overture on, the singers never covered. There was no sense of rushing as a lazy way of conveying liveliness, but neither was the tenderness ever bogged down.

It is very good work, as is van Hove’s, even if his ideas don’t all quite fly. References to Mozart’s time during the ball scene at the end of Act 1 include, oddly, a slew of cheap-looking masked, gowned mannequins in the windows.

Giovanni’s shift in the final scene — the dinner at which he prepares for a visit from the man he murdered — to pasta-flinging, bread-juggling, table-overturning mania seems to come out of nowhere. If the point is that this break with the character we’ve come to know is sudden and anxious, it still doesn’t convince.

But what arrives just a few minutes later does. For all the production’s perennially smoky hints of hellfire, Giovanni’s end comes amid a vision of the underworld, projected onto the set, that is far more somber — and more disturbing — than the usual weak flames.

Then the buildings rotate back into their original positions, revealing sunlit, cheerful plants and billowing curtains where there was formerly just implacable stone. The implication — supported by the perky music, if not the more ambivalent text, sung as a finale by the surviving characters — is that eliminating the single bad apple will let the garden of society bloom.

The notion is reassuring, however implausible. Perhaps van Hove, for all his grim austerity, is actually an optimist at heart.

‘Don Giovanni’

Through June 2 at the Metropolitan Opera, Manhattan;

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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