SAN FRANCISCO — San Francisco Opera’s new production of Don Giovanni is brilliant musically, but director Michael Cavanagh’s concept, while not exactly a head scratcher, presents a jumble of ideas that never coalesces into a cohesive whole. It does, however, have its moments.
Cavanagh sought to create a unifying arc for Mozart’s three Da Ponte operas — Le Nozze di Figaro, Così fan tutte, and Don Giovanni — by setting them all in the same grand American house in the Mid-Atlantic United States over a span of 300 years. It was a stretch from the start, as neither Mozart nor Da Ponte conceived of the three operas as a trilogy.
Not having seen the productions of Figaro or Così, it is impossible to gauge whether the concept worked for those operas. But by the third installment of this “Great American House journey,” as Cavanagh termed it, his well of inspiration was running dry.
The action is transported to 2090, when the mansion is crumbling and society seems to have gone to pot. It’s a far happier place, however, than the post-apocalyptic world conceived by Cormac McCarthy in his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Road. Curiously, the light-hearted, motley crew of ordinary folk that inhabits this futuristic society kept bringing to mind Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem, set in present-day England. Cavanagh and Butterworth appear to share a more benign view of humanity at the brink than does McCarthy.
The costuming does little to impose cohesion on the action. Constance Hoffman must have raided the SFO’s costume collection and decided for the most part who was to wear what by pulling items of clothing from it at random. There is a stab at defining class, but other than that, anything goes.
Cavanagh’s most potent idea was the giant bust of the Commendatore (sung by the excellent bass Soloman Howard), which dominates the final scene. What it is doing in Don Giovanni’s rooms, which were somehow spared from the general destruction of the house, is anyone’s guess, but it is impressive. Likewise, hats off to Cavanagh for dispatching Don Giovanni with such excitement and expediency; the scoundrel is swiftly and dramatically swallowed up, so to speak, by the statue. The ensuing applause stopped the show, which for all practical purposes rendered the final ensemble as little more than an afterthought.
Bertrand de Billy made his conducting debut at SFO with this Don Giovanni. He was fresh from a run of the opera earlier in 2022 at the Opéra national de Paris. Two members of the cast traveled with him to San Francisco, Nicole Car as Donna Elvira and Christina Gansch as Zerlina. Car was a last minute replacement for Carmen Giannattasio, who had to cancel for medical reasons that were not Covid-related.
De Billy conducted a fluid, ideally paced reading of the score and kept tempi brisk for the most part. The SFO orchestra responded in kind with fleet playing and sound that was vibrant, supple, and transparent. The performance tilted towards the lyrical, which aligned with Etienne Dupuis’ approach to the title role.
There was nothing particularly demonic about DuPuis’ Don Giovanni, except for his single-minded pursuit of anything in a skirt. Striking in both figure and voice, his Don Giovanni had a dangerous charm, however, that was like catnip to women of any class. As if to prove the point, as he sang his serenade, “Deh, vieni alla finestra,” women peered out of windows and came out of the shadows to listen to the beautiful sound of his voice.
Don Giovanni’s servant Leporello, the excellent bass-baritone Luca Pisaroni, carted his belongings around in a battered shopping cart. There is little humor in Pisaroni’s long-suffering Leporello, just frustration and resignation. Prior to beginning the Catalog Aria, he pulled the book containing the lists of Don Giovanni’s conquests from the cart. Car’s Donna Elvira stood dumb-stuck, staring at page after page of the names of women that Don Giovanni had seduced. Pisaroni sang the aria with a sense of irony, rather than amusement.
Car portrayed Donna Elvira as a woman in love, as opposed to a deranged virago, albeit one seeking justice for herself as well as all of the other women that Don Giovanni had used and discarded. There was nobility in Car’s character and in her singing, even when giving full vent to her rage in “Ah, fuggi il traditor,” when she thwarts Don Giovanni’s seduction of Zerlina. Car’s “Mi tradi quell’alma ingrata” in the second act, in which she vents her fury at Don Giovanni, was made all the more complex by her moving declarations of affection and compassion for him.
As Donna Anna, Adela Zaharia had a different emotional journey to traverse. Distraught over Don Giovanni’s murder of her father and equally as intent on revenge as Car’s Donna Elvira, Zaharia’s Donna Anna also had to be mindful of the love of Don Ottavio, sung by the fine lyric tenor Amitai Pati. Her “Non mi dir” was a rapturous declaration of love sung with sumptuous tone and seamless legato that ended with an outburst of emotion expressed in limpid coloratura.
De Billy opted for the 1788 Vienna version of the opera, as opposed to the original one, which had premiered in Prague the year earlier. This choice generally has the greatest impact on the tenor singing Don Ottavio, as the heroic aria “Il mio tesoro” is replaced by the more lyrical “Dalla sua pace.” Pati sang the latter with golden color and a great depth of feeling, but one still wished to have heard him tackle one of Mozart’s most formidable tenor arias.
Apart from some streamlining of the finale, the other major addition for the Vienna premiere was “Per queste tue manine,” a duet for Leporello and Zerlina, which is seldom heard. At this performance, its inclusion provided more opportunity to savor Gansch’s delightful Zerlin. The most fancifully attired of any of the characters, Gansch wore a jaunty bowler hat and plenty of pink netting. The pink disappears for her duet with Leporello, who is strapped to an antique electric chair, as she taunts him.
Gansch was perfectly partnered with the Masetto of Cody Quattlebaum. The baritone has an engaging air about him that is matched by the ease of his singing. When together, Gansch and Quattlebaum generated a chemistry that created a special world all of their own making. It was a wonderful place that just felt so Mozartian.