Yesterday afternoon in the War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco Opera (SFO) gave the first of eight performances of the second opera in its annual Summer Season, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's K. 527 Don Giovanni. The occasion marked the debut of French conductor Marc Minkowski. Minkowski is best known as the founder and director of the period-instrument ensemble Les Musiciens du Louvre, but his conducting portfolio extends from the seventeenth century to the twentieth. It looked, from my vantage point, as if the two trumpeters were playing valveless instruments; but the remaining members of the SFO Orchestra were playing their usual contemporary instruments.
While most members of the audience go to the opera for the vocalists, I feel it appropriate to begin in the orchestra pit, because the first measure of this score sets the tone for everything that will follow. Minkowski gave a full-bore rendering of that measure, making it clear that this would be no casual opera buffa. Indeed, throughout the entire opera, Minkowski's style moved things forward with an almost diabolical drive, effectively underscoring those sinister forces that will propel the title character through his dark narrative, which begins with rape and murder and ends with his being dragged down to Hell by the spirit of the man he murdered. It might be a bit of a stretch to say that Minkowski defined the context within which stage director Jacopo Spirei and the vocalists would have to work, but it would not be that much of an exaggeration!
Before the performance began, General Director Matthew Shilvock informed the audience that bass-baritone Ildebrando D'Arcangelo, making his SFO debut in the title role, was contending with the onset of illness but that he had decided to perform. He did not disappoint. His delivery was a solid account of the Don at his most diabolical; and his killing of the Commendatore (bass Andrea Silvestrelli) was one of raw brutality, rather than a duel over a matter of honor. Thus, when the ghost of the Commendatore returns towards the end of the opera, the two were perfectly matched in the tumultuous vocal lines that lead up to the Don's demise.
Bass-baritone Erwin Schrott presented the servant Leporello as perfectly complemented to the Don to the point where their interchangeability in the second act was comically convincing. However, the libretto is structured around the Don's relations with three women, all soprano roles. Erin Wall made her SFO debut singing Donna Anna, the Commendatore's daughter and the Don's prey as the first act begins. Donna Elvira, a woman he seduced and abandoned, was sung by Ana Maria Martínez, while the peasant girl Zerlina (anticipated as the next conquest) was sung by Sarah Shafer. Of the three, Martínez endowed her character with the most substance, using some Hispanic guttural trills to underscore a few of her angry gestures. Shafer summoned up several convincing dramatic cues to suggest how her attention is torn between the Don and the man she is about to marry, Masetto (bass-baritone Michael Sumuel). Wall, on the other hand, often seemed to be out of her comfort zone with the musical demands she confronted; and at least one of the coloratura passages was more than a little uncertain. On the male side both Masetto and Don Ottavio (tenor Stanislas de Barbeyrac, also making his SFO debut) are decidedly secondary; and, if de Barbeyrac was really there only to sing two lovely tenor arias, one in each act, he knew how to deliver them with polish.
The program book described the staging as a "reboot" of the production last performed in 2011, which had been staged by Gabriele Lavia with set designs by Alessandro Camera. Those designs were reconceived by Tommi Brem and involved a large number of hanging frames that would rise and fall to indicate changes in locale. These were apparently intended for projection. However, those projections were scarce; and some of them did not appear to work as intended. Only in the final scene did the technique pay off effectively, since we had the Don's ghost looking down on the "sextet of survivors," each granted the gift of a fresh start in life:
by Cory Weaver, courtesy of San Francisco Opera
All this made for an effective and convincing delivery of one of the most popular works in the "grand opera" canon. Nevertheless, it seems as if the libretto by Lorenzo Da Ponte gets increasingly harder to take as attitudes towards women change with the advance of history. As Marcia Angell wrote in "The Abortion Battlefield" for the next issue of The New York Review of Books (currently available on a Web page), "Women have always been subject to male domination, sometimes almost completely;" and that spirit of male domination is even more haunting than the ghosts Da Ponte summons in his libretto. Contemporary reporting being what it is, it has become difficult to observe much of that banter between the Don and Leporello without being reminded of that tape of ghastly exchanges between Donald Trump and Billy Bush.
However, this may be where Elvira's character may be best capable of speaking to the contemporary audience. She is the strongest woman in the cast, not only through her dogged persistence but also because she is the one woman with her own defining sense of self. Da Ponte tries to dismiss her in that final sextet by having her sing of ending her days in a cloister. Fat chance. We know better. She may seek the shelter of the church; but she is just the sort of person who will then devote her time to building a shelter for women victimized by "male domination." Spirei's direction suggested that Elvira's character had the seeds of a "new woman;" and Martínez knew how to breath life into that character at yesterday's performance.