By Andrew Patner
CHICAGO — “What’s the concept?” has become perhaps the most misused question in the world of opera. Many stage directors think that they have an answer. Most producers and marketers think that they need one. Many audience members object to the very idea of such a thing.
It’s understandable to an extent. After lovers on leashes, space age Aidas, triple-decker “mind-reading” supertitles, manipulation and resetting of scenarios — even, in the most extreme cases, of the music itself — “modernizing” costumes and swaggers seem to many to be the norm. Regie, some think, has become de rigueur.
How refreshing to see a refutation of so much of this, and from a director and a company in no way committed to turning the clock back. Lyric Opera of Chicago launched as Lyric Theatre 60 years ago with a “calling card” production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, and the company has revisited the work a number of times in its history as a kind of temperature-taking. For its 50th anniversary, Lyric lured German directorial legend Peter Stein across the Atlantic for a memorable take on Don Giovanni, and now inaugurates its 2014-15 season with a new production of this classic work.
And does so with the always thinking Robert Falls, longtime artistic director of Chicago’s historic Goodman Theatre, Tony Award winner (for his revival of Eugene O’Neill’s A Long Day’s Journey into Night) and midwife to Tonys and nominations for many others. For someone whose theater work is so operatic, Falls has directed — and superbly — too few operas: at the Lyric, Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah (soprano Renée Fleming’s house debut 21 seasons ago) and Menotti’s The Consul. He also directed Susanna at the Metropolitan Opera.
Falls’ Giovanni production solves several problems off the bat, including the most important one — how can the music, story, and characters be communicated to a living audience? That’s the only “concept” that matters. A big man who works in a big theater, Falls is a master at using large spaces and stages yet does so in a way that doesn’t call at all for Zeffirelli-style crowds.
Rather, as many productions at his Goodman home base have shown, he makes full use of a cavernous stage but with design and lighting always draws our attention to single individuals and exchanges. His recent recreation of Chekhov’s The Seagull in the Goodman’s second, smaller theater, as a no-set, no-props diagonal runway production, was a kind of self- and audience-cleansing of gigantism, a reminder ever to make and watch the smallest gestures and to connect via the text itself.
With longtime colleague designer Walt Spangler and Lyric’s former lighting guru Duane Schuler, Falls here creates a kind of free-floating Spain — as, in effect, Mozart and Da Ponte themselves did. The period between the First World and Spain’s own catastrophic Civil War, the 1920s, is sufficiently close to our own to underscore the contemporary nature of Giovanni’s story, without pressing an arbitrary time on it. So we connect with these characters as living, breathing people, not 18th-century archetypes.
Yet, this being Spain, there is a distance and a medieval set of customs, mores and class distinctions there that are never anachronistic. Spangler’s exteriors — action tends to take place in plazas of “a small village in Spain” — show how the malevolent adventures of the Don exist for him as his own little stage shows, however dwarfed the other characters can feel by weighty Iberian tradition.
Even the two clearly interior scenes — a church for the first sextet of the second half, “Sola, sola in buio loco,” Giovanni’s dining room for the final confrontation scene with the Commendatore — are about individuals in very large and cool emotional and philosophical places. Nature appears when the peasants or death — two realities avoided by the aristocrats — are present: a marvelous set of green, tiered and planted ramps for Giovanni’s garden, and a cemetery piled with flower-planted headstones on a green hill crowned by the Commendatore’s statue.
The magic of another regular Falls collaborator, costume designer Ana Kuzmanic, relates more to two other areas where the production excels: the naturalness of the cast, its individual and ensemble performances, and the keen understanding of the class issues of the opera, which along with sex and morality/religion are its three areas of being. That Kuzmanic — who does these complex things with beauty, color, elegance, and right materials — had never costumed an opera before is a further sign of how unaware opera houses can be of theater talent today. Moreover, her work makes clear that what the art form needs is not random matings of mismatched artists but intelligent collaborations of experienced people with genuine curiosity.
And what a cast to enact this opera’s many traps and pleasures and deliver its singing with ease and idiom! By now Polish baritone Mariusz Kwiecień, though only 41, is known as the Don of today, and in this, his 19th production of the piece, he shows his ability to bring absolute freshness to the role under the right circumstances, wooing the audience as much as his female conquests and simultaneously betraying us and them with his cruelty, menace, and self-involvement.
Kwiecień is both so cunning and sings with such loveliness that he almost cons us all with his balcony serenade of Elvira’s maid, “Deh, vieni alla finestra.” Spending the last half hour in an open robe or shirtless, the lithe and boyish Kwiecień pulls together every aspect of the Don’s person for his attempted defiance of his judgment.
Revealing the coup de théâtre devised to illustrate Giovanni’s losing battle here would be an unforgivable spoiler. That Falls is also in a long line of directors stymied a bit by the controversial righteous epilogue is not a letdown, as he does keep the individuality of the characters and their moral puzzlement in the ensemble. (Though, at least on opening night, the lengthy pause in the pit before the downbeat made one wonder if the finale was being omitted and too many audience members took this as a cue that the performance had ended.)
As University of Chicago philosopher Martha C. Nussbaum reminds us in an unusually meaty essay for an opera program book, the women are the real focus in the opera and the ones from whom we have the most to learn. “Rape, Revenge, Love: The Don Giovanni Puzzle” was written without benefit of seeing the Falls production, but the wavelength is a shared one. The women are the complex characters here, not the Don nor the two-faced Leporello nor, even with the valiant effort and sure singing of young Central Italian tenor Antonio Poli to redeem his ever-dismissed role, Don Ottavio. And certainly not the opera’s ultimate loser and winner, the Commendatore. As Donna Elvira, Puerto Rican-born soprano Ana María Martínez perhaps most embraces the pan-century quality of her character. In song and story she gives us the admixture of comedy and tragedy, genuine love and earned hatred of this spurned but obsessed woman.
Latvian soprano Marina Rebeka has a Lyric breakout as Donna Anna, having been a miscast Violetta in last season’s La traviata. This is a rare three-dimensional performance with deep shading of the noblewoman’s psychology and an absolutely moving and mature “Non mi dir.” Rising Canadian soprano Andriana Chuchman, an alumna of Lyric’s excellent Ryan Center training program, similarly finds the agency in Zerlina, and debuting young American bass-baritone Michael Sumuel’s Masetto rises to match his bride, though his insights are those from class oppression more than sexual hierarchy. Italian bass Andrea Silvestrelli gave his customary floor-stirring presentation of Donna Anna’s father both in and out of the requisite elaborate make-up.
American bass-baritone Kyle Ketelsen has taken up Leporello almost as many times as Kwiecień has been the Don (this is number 15) and he gives us the early Catalogue Aria as a kind of play within a play, including making unusually clear that the Don’s tastes include both violence and underage girls. He and Kwiecień make a rare pair that can actually be successfully interchanged physically, raising the believability quotient greatly. Maybe it is Falls’ hard analysis, which reveals how transparent the valet can be, that explains why later in the opera Ketelsen seems to disappear into the ensemble numbers.
None of this could happen on this level without the guiding hand of music director Andrew Davis, an experienced and enthusiastic Mozartean who makes sure that we see and hear the composer’s treatment of the Da Ponte libretto at least as much as Falls’. The Lyric Orchestra is at a very high level these days with both Davis and guests, and their engagement is complete. Ditto the Lyric Chorus as prepared by chorus master Michael Black. The choristers show themselves game actors and dancers (playful and just edgy enough choreography by August Tye), too. Wigs and makeup by Sarah Hatten are of an attractive and wholly believable piece. Colin Ure’s up-to-date supertitles are at times quite saucy, but they fit.
Two years ago, Falls invited Catalonian Calixto Bieito, the most challenging director in opera today, to do a large-scale production at Chicago’s Goodman, the practically never produced stage play Camino Real of Tennessee Williams. It is sad but not surprising that this is the only U.S. work audiences have seen by the controversial artist. While some do not see beyond the “shock” of Bieito’s work, Falls recognizes its depth and its motivation from passion and love for the work being offered.
This connection was apparent in this Giovanni. Some Lyric opening night audience members actually found this Falls production a bit “soft” while others thought some of the sexuality was made too explicit (how it could be more explicit than the libretto and score I do not know, but the public presentation was apparently toned down a bit from the dress rehearsal). For this viewer and listener, Falls shows us how immediacy can work best with clarity and how a gifted theater artist can show us that the Don, and Mozart, of course, are ever our contemporaries.
Andrew Patner has been critic-at-large for Chicago’s WFMT Fine Arts Radio and wfmt.com for 16 years, and a contributor and critic for the Chicago Sun-Times for 23 years. A former staff reporter for The Wall Street Journal and reporter and editor for the old WFMT, Inc.-owned Chicago magazine, he is the author of I.F. Stone: A Portrait, on the independent American journalist and writer (Pantheon, 1988; Anchor paperback, 1990). Patner has written, lectured, and broadcast for many national and international publications, venues, and radio services.