Sex, drugs & Mozart: Chicago Lyric Opera’s Don Giovanni

Mozart – Don Giovanni

Don Giovanni – Mariusz Kwiecień

Leporello – Kyle Ketelsen

Donna Anna – Marina Rebeka

Donna Elvira – Ana María Martínez

Don Ottavio – Antonio Poli

Zerlina – Andriana Chuchman

Masetto – Michael Sumuel

Commendatore – Andrea Silvestrelli 

Chicago Lyric Opera Chorus, Chicago Lyric Opera Orchestra / Andrew Davis.

Stage Director – Robert Falls.

Chicago Lyric Opera, Chicago.  Tuesday, September 30th, 2014

This was my first visit to the Chicago Lyric Opera and to Chicago and both are definitely worth visiting.  Opened in 1929 and fully refurbished in 1996, it is a handsome theatre indeed.  Sightlines are great from all seats and the acoustic seems to work well, certainly from where I was sitting.  In common with North American houses generally, much emphasis is made on selling subscriptions but individual tickets do go on sale around the start of August.  Prices are certainly reasonable for this part of the world and the quality of the casting and performances is invariably very high.  If visiting, I do recommend passing by earlier on the day of the performance to pick up tickets as, when I arrived, there was a very long line for the box office.  It is a great venue and certainly deserves a place on any opera-goer’s plans.

Lyric Opera

As I’ve mentioned before, Don Giovanni is a director’s graveyard.  I’ve seen some awful stagings (Zambello), some highly successful ones that bring the work to life (Bieito) and some that just tried too hard (the recent Holten at the Royal Opera).  Robert Falls is recognized as one of the finest theatre directors in the US but he has directed very little opera.  How did he fare in a work that has defeated so many?

On the whole his staging works extremely well.  It is fluent and logical and the Personenregie is exceptionally detailed.  He has clearly thought the work anew and it shows.  There were many highly insightful ideas.  The opening and murder seemed to be an anonymous sex game gone wrong.  Anna is initially a willing participant but everything changes when her father is murdered.  In the final scene Elvira’s maid is chained in a corner but we don’t know whether she did it voluntarily or was made to do so by Giovanni.  For Falls, Giovanni is a hyper-sexualized character who is very different to the society that he is living in.  Costumes and sets seem to reflect a Southern European Catholic society in the 1920s.  In the Act 1 finale there are some spectacular costumes for Anna, Elvira and Ottavio.  When they dance, they dance a formalized set of movements yet Giovanni freestyles with Zerlina.  There is a lot of cocaine-taking too and the party turns into a poly-sexual orgy which seemed to be quite enjoyable for those participating in it.  Interestingly we see the Commendatore walking at the back of the stage at the very end of the act.  So far, so convincing.

Photo: Todd Rosenberg

Photo: Todd Rosenberg

There were a few things that didn’t convince though.  In ‘dalla sua pace’ a curtain comes down behind Ottavio and Anna disappears for no apparent reason.  Clearly the reason is to accommodate a scene change but it seems to be a dramatic non sequitur.  Similarly when Elvira sings ‘mi tradi’ the same thing happens.  Unfortunately, all the good work that Falls does seems to be in vain as for me, he fluffs the ending.  Elvira shoots Giovanni dead which works well but then the Commendatore enters.  Given that the staging has been highly realistic up until this point, I find it difficult to suspend disbelief when the Commendatore arrives.  Furthermore, Giovanni goes to hell by the table he is lying on pulled inside the ground in a cloud of smoke.  I just felt at that point that all the work that Falls had done to think the work afresh had been in vain with him resorting to a cliché of hellish smoke.

Photo: Todd Rosenberg

Photo: Todd Rosenberg

The singing was very good.  When he sang the role at the Royal Opera earlier this year, I felt that Mariusz Kwiecień had to compromise beauty of tone to fit in with Kasper Holten’s aggressive conception of the character.  Tonight was something completely different.  He gave us a Giovanni that was elegant and seductive – this was indeed a character that could seduce anyone he came across.  His singing was virile and rich, so many long phrases taken in single breaths with a richness of tone that was captivating.  The champagne aria was a knockout and he sang a well-supported and finely-tuned serenade.  The final scene was utterly gripping – sung with commanding power yet never compromising the integrity of the sound.  Tonight was by far the best I’ve heard him sing the role.  He was sensational.

Kyle Ketelsen brought his experienced Leporello to the staging and he gave us something much more than the one-dimensional character we often see.  Here was someone who was really not happy with the way he was treated yet was motivated by money and by the thrills of living with Don Giovanni.  Vocally he was superb. The voice easily produced, full and even.  His catalogue aria was wonderfully dispatched and he was a tireless presence.  Outstanding.  Antonio Poli’s Ottavio was familiar also from this year’s Royal Opera staging.  He seems to have been working to develop a stronger sense of Mozartian style and seemed more secure in the idiom than earlier this year.  ‘Dalla sua pace’ felt somewhat stiff and the tone tight and constricted in the long sustained lines but he dispatched ‘il mio tesoro’ with relative ease.  A promising talent if not yet a finished one.  Michael Sumuel gave us a liquid bass-baritone that was nicely resonant while Andrea Silvestrelli’s Commendatore sounded a bit woolly and hollow in the first scene though he was nicely booming at the end.

Photo: Todd Rosenberg

Photo: Todd Rosenberg

Marina Rebeka’s Anna was an interesting one. The voice is a good fit for the role and she can sing it with ease.  One thing I particularly liked was how she sang the double consonants which can often trick non-Italian speakers.  Yet the voice also seems to lack a variety of tonal colour.  It’s a pleasure to hear the role so securely sung though I wish she would inject more colour and shading into the tone.  Andriana Chuchman’s Zerlina was sung with a crystal tone that was beguiling.  Ana María Martínez gave us a gleaming and richly-sung Elvira.  It seems churlish to mention a couple of ungainly breaths in ‘mi tradì’ and it felt that she could have done with a more sympathetic tempo at that point.  What I particularly liked about her interpretation is that she really made the recitatives something that drove the drama forward with an attention to words and phrasing that was masterful.  She really every word count ideally manipulating Da Ponte’s text.  Very impressive.  The only thing that I missed was a lack of ornamentation.

Photo: Todd Rosenberg

Photo: Todd Rosenberg

Indeed, the lack of ornamentation was the one major musical disappointment of the evening.  Apart from the odd appoggiatura and a couple of embellishments here and there, ornamentation was absent and I longed to hear the singers take some risks with the musical line and bring it even more to life.  Andrew Davis’ conducting of the fine house orchestra might not be the kind of Mozart I could live with – it was far too well-upholstered for my taste – but it was certainly deeply intelligent and well judged.  Apart from one major misfire in the final scene where he chose a tempo that sagged far too much and the ‘mi tradì’ that would have benefitted from being a couple of notches slower, it was an evening where the hours flew by.  One thing I particularly enjoyed was how he brought out so much detail, so many inner voices in the orchestration.  There was a wealth of instrumental detail that so often goes unnoticed.  This was a reading that reflected a profound understanding and knowledge of the score and it worked extremely well.

This was an excellent account of a work that has defeated so many.  If it lost its way slightly in the final scene so much of what came before that was so very memorable.  This was a true ensemble performance sung by a cast at the highest level.  It was anchored by a truly exceptional performance of the title role by a singer at his peak.  A superb evening.

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3 responses to “Sex, drugs & Mozart: Chicago Lyric Opera’s Don Giovanni

  1. Reading your review was the next best thing to being there myself. Thank you!

    Sent from my iPad

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  2. I saw this production on October 11 and agree that it was superb with a really fine cast and fresh staging. One of the best nights I have had at the opera in many years. Although I have to disagree with you about the final scene, which I thought was very cleverly done, thank you for a thoughtful and insightful review.

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