When the heated passions of summer give way to autumnal sobriety, when the balm of the aestival evening yields to the inexorability of the encroaching darkness and chill, some look backward with melancholy and forward with irritation, some go so far as to book passage to Miami. Yet others rejoice, for the eruption of fiery color in the hardwood forests is also a sure herald of the beginning of a new season at the Metropolitan Opera House.
And what better way to begin one's subscription series than with the glorious music and moral certitude of Mozart's Don Giovanni. How meet, say the viols, how right, declare the oboes, that the good earth, having borne more than is humanly possible, gapes open to swallow the immoral villain.
But are we really so certain? A closer reading of the characters as they are presented in Da Ponte's libretto seems to tell a different story. Leporello, after all, is a buffoon; the Commendatore a pompous fart who insists on challenging a younger, stronger man; Donna Elvira is a lovelorn flake; Masetto can be charitably described as white trash; Zerlina is a hussy; and Donna Anna is a spoiled prick-tease who leads the wuss Ottavio around like Be-Bop-a-Lula walking her puppy dog. Only the title character bears himself throughout with the integrity of his convictions, be they ever so contrary to society's, and the chastity-challenged noble in the end meets vengeance not for the 2,065 catalogued conquests of women but for the slaying of one man.
Nobody ever accused Mozart of lacking a sense of humor.
The performance of rising superstar Bryn Terfel as the grumbling accomplice epitomized the ambiguity of the work. Too handsome and strapping himself to convey a proper fool, his forced antics became convincing only when he hid beneath his master's cloak in the darkness of the mandolin scene. Throughout, his riveting bass belied avarice over a bag of ducats and cowardice before the threat of physical injury. He richly deserved that pheasant.
Thomas Hampson was not in full voice on this particular evening, yet he still commanded the stage as an energetic and imperious Don in the role he was born to play. Sharon Sweet, a natural for Donna Anna, had bigger problems: she was replaced by Carolyn James. Giving nothing away physically, the size of her voice in the first act had this reviewer wondering whether Ms James should have switched roles with Hei-Kyung Hong. Fortunately, I am not a casting director, for in the second act she truly found herself and gave a stunning "Non mi dir," while Ms. Hong was a thoroughly captivating Zerlina, particularly in the lovely, pretty, gentle, sweet, lyricaland topical"Batti, batti, o bel Masetto" ("Beat me...beat your poor Zerlina...I'll be meek as a lamb...tear my hair out, put out my eyes, and I'll gladly kiss your dear hands"), as well as "Vedrai, carino," the original "Sexual Healing." Sergei Koptchak, last seen as a different kind of doting father in last season's Lady MacBeth of Mtsensk, was a forceful Commendatore, and Herbert Perry bravely took his licks as the peasant-cuckold-to-be. The audience's favorite appeared to be Frank Lopardo, whose pure tenor arias thrilled the family circle, yet I was most impressed by the grace and dignity endowed upon Donna Elvira's hapless character by Patricia Schuman.
The Met orchestra is arguably the finest of any pit ensemble in the world. It is always a special treat to hear such a collection of artists in a proper acoustical setting, and particularly so when artistic director James Levine is at the podium. The most sublime passages are always given the proper respect and tempo, and, moreover, since he's the boss, he always has the best of the best at his sideI noticed associate concertmasters sitting five and six in the violin section.
Those who are aghast at the second act of Bohème or in the Principessa's palace might find Franco Zeffirelli's sets, dating from 1990, downright minimalist. His studious avoidance of the ostentatiously obvious actually made problematical the treatment of the stone guest, who finally trundled on stage like a cartoon golem. An extremely gracious touch, however, was the concluding staging, with the principals (minus the Don, of course) strolling into an infinite sunrise, then, after the final chord, turning on their heels to receive their just appreciation.