NEW YORK — Crime and punishment permeate Ivo van Hove’s new production of Don Giovanni that opened May 5 at the Metropolitan Opera. A co-production with the Paris Opera, where I saw it at the premiere in 2019, the excellent singing, detailed direction, and a visually stimulating update made this the best Don Giovanni at the Met in decades. But the modern and unrelentingly sober interpretation will challenge traditionalists looking for the humor in Mozart’s dramma giocoso.
Comparison may be odious, but it’s hard to resist viewing van Hove’s work in light of earlier Met productions. After Zeffirelli’s lavishly traditional staging (1985-2003), Marthe Keller and Michael Grandage in turn took more minimalist approaches, using period costumes but defining the stage with increasingly abstract elements. Neither production was beloved.
In his debut production at the Met, van Hove, a highly experienced Belgian director with Broadway and opera credits, creates a specific world palpably burdened by an impulsive libertine without redeeming qualities. The director fills the stage with a four-story concrete block streetscape, its steeply raked plaza flanked by steps leading to galleries, alleyways, and staircases, along with balconies and niches available for lurking. The light is dim, and wisps of vapor or smoke seep through the floor. The three-dimensional depth of the original architecture imperceptibly, gradually flattens out, as the buildings rotate and realign until the climax, when the set traps Giovanni against a wall with no way to escape the avenging Commendatore. The stage (sets and lighting by Jan Versweyveld) isn’t pretty, but it is compelling. And after Giovanni’s dispatch to the netherworld, the set swiftly transforms into a sunny Mediterranean neighborhood, aglow with awnings and colorful flowers, a relief after Giovanni’s grim world.
The costumes (by An D’Huys) are timelessly modern: black suits and white shirts for Giovanni and Leporello (a tie for the dapper Giovanni, open collar for his servant), gray or black dresses for the two Donne, a gray suit for Ottavio, and neutral-colored casual wear for Zerlina, Masetto, and their working-class friends. All the men except for Leporello wear handguns, which they brandish frequently. Colorful period costumes on the three noble guests (and on a bevy of inflatable mannequins crowding the balconies) brighten the Act I finale masked ball, with Giovanni and Leporello in white suits.
The thrust of van Hove’s interpretation is that Don Giovanni is the worst of a collection of flawed characters. Giovanni takes what he wants without regard for anyone beyond himself, stopping at nothing to achieve his ends. The detailed direction of the other individuals gives vitality to what is often a collection of caricatures, including Giovanni’s weak-willed enabler Leporello, the lusty peasant girl Zerlina, and her jealous fiancé Masetto. The noble but commitment-phobic Anna, in exaggeratedly protracted mourning for her father, her meek suitor Ottavio, and the seduced and abandoned Elvira, normally little more than a stock comic figure, are all subtly fleshed out as complex and conflicted beings.
The cast was exemplary, with physically persuasive casting, strong character portrayals, and fine singing. Topping the roster was Peter Mattei, probably the preeminent Giovanni today (he had already sung 36 Met performances of the role). With his creamy, powerful baritone and stage charisma, he offered a somewhat more sympathetic Don than the irredeemable sociopath envisioned by the director, but his seductive allure only made his domination of the stage more persuasive. As his foil Leporello, Adam Plachetka, another veteran of the previous production, had the physique and demeanor of a bodyguard, and understated humor. Federica Lombardi, who sang Elvira for her 2019 Met debut, was a luxuriously voiced, volatile, and intriguingly ambivalent Donna Anna. A little wild-sounding in her opening minutes — certainly appropriate for a target of sexual assault — she warmed into a vocally accomplished performance, with lustrous tone and aristocratic bearing.
Ben Bliss may be the best Don Ottavio I’ve ever heard. He sang impeccably, with an effortless top, long lines, clean passagework, and tasteful ornamentation. His disciplined vocalism underscored the hapless character’s sense of duty — this Ottavio made the sign of the cross in time to the music and never let his shirt come untucked. Normally controlled in his emotions (when not pulling a gun on Giovanni), he managed the delicate action of curling up on the floor in fetal position as Anna once again tries his patience, asking for more time to grieve before they marry — unconvincing in the Paris premiere.
Ying Fang as Zerlina was perhaps less earthy than in van Hove’s conception, but her singing was touchingly lovely. Her duet with Giovanni, “Là ci darem la mano,” was a high point of the evening. Ana María Martínez, as Donna Elvira, sang beautifully, impressively meeting the challenge of her second-act aria, “Mi tradì.” I did, however, miss Elvira’s sense of moral clarity, in addition to shame and indignation, seen in the Paris run. Alfred Walker as Masetto was effective as an older-than-usual suitor for Zerlina, though I wasn’t entirely convinced that the Don could have physically bested the sturdy bass-baritone in their second-act tussle. Finally, Alexander Tsymbalyuk was resonant and commanding as Donna Anna’s younger-than-usual father, a role he played in the Bastille revival of this production.
Last but not least, conductor Nathalie Stutzmann, in a notable house debut, led a propulsive but unhurried reading of the score. The French native, who began her career as a contralto at a time when women were less welcome on the podium, brings a vocalist’s understanding of phrasing to the job; she brought out inner instrumental voices that complemented the singers. The continuo team of pianoforte, theorbo, and cello sounded especially supple and responsive to the singers. Small glitches between pit and stage, especially in the second act, should smooth out after another performance or two. Meanwhile, Stutzmann also leads a new Met production of Die Zauberflöte opening May 19.
Performances of Don Giovanni continue through June 2. For tickets, go here. Don Giovanni will be shown live in cinemas on May 20. To find a theater, go here.