November 13, 2011

Don Giovanni: Behind the Scenes

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On Nov. 16th, without even having to take the Campus-to-Campus bus to New York City, Ithaca opera fans will have the final opportunity to view a live encore streaming of the newest production of the Metropolitan Opera, Mozart’s Don Giovanni. Just take the TCAT Route 30 to view this first rate, full-length performance, complete with internationally renowned singers, all in the comfort of the Ithaca Mall Stadium 16.

As an added bonus to the spectacular opera itself, the Met gives us exclusive insight into its production in this live broadcasting. Backstage interviews and footage make the showing well worth its four-hour duration. With Renée Fleming as host, the audience is able to meet the leads backstage during intermission just seconds after they rush out of the limelight, placing us right in the middle of the action. A disheveled Mariusz Kwiecien showed up to his interview, informing us that he had just run straight into a wall after the end of Act I, as he was required to run offstage in flight.

Perhaps it was this same clumsiness that led to the titular character’s injury during dress rehearsal just three days before opening night. In a dramatic event on Oct. 10th, Mr. Kwiecien injured himself in the first scene during the sword fight with the Commendatore. The Polish baritone was taken to the hospital where he had surgery on a herniated disc in his lower back. Impressively, Kwiecien managed to miss only the first three shows, throwing himself back into the role with great vigor after rehabilitation. It was difficult to believe that this debonair, athletic man was in a weak place just a week before this showing. True, his performance included less physical activity than initially planned, but Kwiecien found other ways to keep this legendary role exciting.

In fact, like most of the other singers chosen for this production, Kwiecien fit his role like a glove. His highly detailed acting came from nine years of playing the part previously; this role has become his calling card. The fact that Kwiecien is quite handsome did make his performance all the more veritable. Not that his singing wasn’t impressive, as demonstrated in the extreme speed of patter with which he sang the buffo aria, “Fin ch’han dal vino” in Act I. After his charming interview during intermission, it was obvious from the talk in the bathroom line that Kwiecien had seduced most of the women in the audience. It is evidence of a Don Giovanni played well if you find yourself pitying this flawed anti-hero even as he is being dragged down to hell for his many transgressions (in an absolutely frightening rendition of this epic scene, by the way).

While the production was traditional, it downplayed the opera buffa side of many of the quintessentially jocular scenes. For instance, during the cataloguing aria, “Madamina, il catalogo è questo,” it is typical to exaggerate the prop book Leporello keeps to record Don Giovanni’s sexual conquests. In many renditions, directors have Leoprello pour pages upon pages onto the floor for comic effect; however, director Michael Grandage kept it simple with a little black book, instead adding an amusing background of silhouetted women appearing one by one as each type was mentioned. Many of the small liberties that are usually taken for this comic opera were cast aside. Instead, most of the humor was brought out in Luca Pisaroni’s Leoprello; his ingenious facial expressions were enough to make the audience snicker.

The pairing of bass-baritone Luca Pisaroni as Don Giovanni’s obsequious, yet irresolute servant was a smart match. Their chemistry was perfectly comedic, but the two could become stern to reveal Don Giovanni’s darker side. This dynamic relationship made the recitatives highly entertaining, whereas they can sometimes fall as the low point of opera performance. Their frivolous to frightening interactions highlighted the beauty of Don Giovanni’s dual structure; the opera is famous for being the dichotomy of comedy and seriousness. Mozart’s music goes from lighthearted to grave in a matter of measures.

What is interesting about this live showing is that viewers in movie theatres around the world are seeing something much more intimate than those sitting in the Metropolitan Opera Hall. The high definition cameras capture footage so close that you can see sweat pouring from the singers’ faces. This broadcasting mirrors the style of a movie, thus placing a higher importance on acting than was initially expected of these vocal performers. As a result of this up-close-and-personal viewing, Donna Anna’s character, sung by soprano Marina Rebeka, came off as placid and unemotional. Close ups revealed little sentiment in response to the death of her father. Her grief was only truly evident in her mournfully sung arias. Meanwhile, Mojca Erdmann, making her Met debut, took full advantage of this visual obstacle in portraying the peasant girl Zerlina. Her petite figure complemented her giddy, coquettish reactions to Don Giovanni’s advances.

The cherry on top of a wonderful production was the performance of the orchestra under the Met’s new principal conductor, the Italian Fabio Luisi. Impressively playing secco recitative with his own harpsichord underneath his conducting baton, Luisi was a welcome addition to the production.  His interpretation of this timeless score had a clear cut deliverance of the music’s many layers, from the delicate overture to the roaring music of Don Giovanni’s fiery descent into hell.

Original Author: Martha Wydysh