These days when opera productions get talked about, it usually involves them doing something new: setting an opera in an unusual place, having Scarpia smooch the Virgin Mary, bringing in a silly rotating machine of planks that nonetheless looks pretty when things are projected onto it. These days, doing something traditional is considered unusual. Or maybe not, since the Met’s done it twice in the operas they’ve broadcasted this fall, complete with the conductor playing continuo on the harpsichord.
Don Giovanni, of course, as an often-done opera, is usually given twists, often ones that subvert Mozart’s original characters; it really is unusual now to do a more or less straightforward interpretation. Even the director of the Met’s new production didn’t really admit that was what they did; he talked about the set, which didn’t really add much but fortunately didn’t take away much, once lead Marius Kwiecien recovered from his dress rehearsal injury in time for broadcast day, and about how they wanted to establish that Don Giovanni was going to Hell simply for murder, not for sleeping around. But for all pop culture, and hostess Renee Fleming, glamorizes him, a straightforward production like this highlights that even if the modern audience doesn’t react to the seduction of innocent maidens the way Mozart’s audience might have, the title character still comes across as a nasty piece of work. He’s a liar, even if you argue about just what happened between him a Donna Anna(the singer at the Met herself claimed it was complicated), I don’t think there’s any debate he was trying to force himself on Zerlina at the end of the first act, and his treatment of Leporello is downright sadistic. Kwiecien, for whom it’s a signature role in his own interview, tries to describe him as depressed, but even he admits he’s just not nice. Everyone involved might have done better than to just admit what the opera shows the audience anyway, but they probably felt like they couldn’t.
Of course it’s easy enough to do Mozart; Don Giovanni carries itself. Handel’s a bit more difficult, both for practical concerns and because the age he wrote in demanded his operas being a cookie-cutter format that will make modern audiences extremely impatient, and it was noted during yesterday’s broadcast of his Rodelinda that he wasn’t performed at the Met until the 80s. But there’s been a bit of revival in recent decades; countertenors now make their living singing roles originally written for castrati, and because, unlike with Mozart, the audience hasn’t seen the opera a thousand times before, they don’t have to get too innovative if they don’t want to. They can call up a Baroque specialist to conduct, put everyone in an 18th-century-that-never-was setting(with appropriate gorgeous period costume), and since they’re the Met, they paid all the money for the magnificent set so complicated the guy in charge of scene changes got interviewed during the intermission, and the audience won’t mind, because we’re still seeing something new. That set really was remarkable; its designer was shown saying he wanted a movie-like set the characters could live in, and it was that(if the production wasn’t from 2004, I would think this was another reflection of how the HD broadcasts are changing things at the Met, whether they admit it or not).
So the only real problem left is dealing with these continual lengthy arias of singers continually repeating the same thing in the A section, then only briefly singing something else in the B section before going back to sing A at us again for five more minutes. This production’s approach was to introduce as much stage activity as possible, especially during the instrumental refrains, having characters go about and communicate silently with each other, the singer take dramatic walks, or just run and hide while guards walk by. They even tried to use this extra character material to maybe make a couple of the plot actions a touch less absurd-it doesn’t really succeed because said task is more or less impossible, but one should appreciate the attempt. A couple of times it even really works well, such as during Unolfo’s second act aria, when Rodelina’s son wanders in just before the repeat so the song Unolfo was singing to the audience becomes one sung to him.
Which made it really annoying, by the way, when the projector broke during Renee Fleming’s final aria and we ended up listening to the last five minutes as a concert(at least the sound feed was still working!) The Hoffman’s employees dug themselves in deeper, too, when they lied and said it was the Met’s fault, though when we got home we found out easily it hadn’t happened elsewhere. No, the only annoyance the Met inflicted on us was Deborah Voigt as hostess; the only good part of the interviews was when she and Fleming joked about the latter wearing the former’s Brunnhilde wig. The rest of the interview was cringe-worthy; Rodelinda is one of Handel’s, and opera’s, best characters, and if one was just the watch Fleming’s interview, one wouldn’t think she had any understanding of that whatsoever. It was especially strange because her performance itself was still magnificent; the production was originally made for her, and that alone made it worth it.
We are now considering switching venues for next season, though for this one are tickets are long bought. Ballston, perhaps.