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As a short respite from what was quickly turning out to be the season of the bitch, last night La Maratonista and I saw Mozart’s Don Giovanni. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect since the plot of this opera basically revolves around a serial rapist, but, when the villain gets his just due by being dragged down to Hell at the end of the story, I guess one can’t really say that the author is condoning his behavior. In the end, it was far less squirm-inducing than something like Madama Butterfly. And it may turn out to be my favorite opera so far, despite the subject matter and the setting.

Like so many operas, including next month’s Carmen as well as Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia, Beethoven’s Fidelio, Verdi’s La forza del destino, and Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro, Don Giovanni is set in Seville. I’m not quite sure why Seville held such fascination for the mostly French authors that these works are based on, but there you go. Yes, it’s beautiful, but, since Seville is the city that began my love-hate (okay, now mostly hate) relationship with Spain, a country I have visited many times, this constant intrusion into my opera-going is unfortunate.

Looking out over the city of Seville, Spain

For me, (cue dramatic music) Seville will always be a city of betrayal. It’s the city where I met him who some know as Ascot Man—on a weekend that began innocently enough with me flying down from Paris to attend a wedding in the cathedral, and somehow ended a week later with me on the red carpet at the Goya awards in Madrid. Oddly enough, the bastard in this particular passion play was neither Ascot Man, nor the future congressman I was initially traveling with, but rather the groom (and former housemate), who turned out to be one of the lyingest liars I have ever met.

So, perhaps it’s quite appropriate that Don Giovanni is set there after all.

Lucas Meachem as Don Giovanni, the bragger of Seville.
Photo by Cory Weaver.

The action of the opera begins with the attempted rape of Donna Anna. She escapes, and her father, coming to her defense, is killed by Don Giovanni, who then flees before his identity can be discovered. Naturally, because it’s opera, Anna and her fiancé, Don Ottavio, swear revenge in a beautiful duet. Meanwhile, Donna Elvira, who Giovanni had jilted some time before, arrives in Seville seeking her former lover.

To give you an idea of Elvira’s tenacity, we learn she has come all the way from Burgos, in northern Spain. (Incidentally, my one and only visit to Burgos was on a weekend away with Ascot Man. On our way to the northern coast from Madrid, we stopped to visit a friend of his who was restoring his family’s castle—or monastery, or some other kind of once-glorious medieval ruin—outside of Burgos. I’m not really sure, because I’ve tried to block most of that trip from my mind. Although I’m very certain ascots were worn.)

But I digress. Suffice it to say that Burgos is a long way from Seville and Elvira is very determined to get her man back.

As usual, Giovanni talks his way out of the situation and leaves his servant Leporello to explain his master’s true character in the hilarious “Madamina, il catalogo è questo,” tallying up his master’s conquests.

Marco Vinco as Leporello, with Don Giovanni’s not-so-little black book.
Photo by Cory Weaver.
Ryan Kuster and Kate Lindsey as Masetto and Zerlina.
Photo by Cory Weaver.

Later, Giovanni and Leporello come upon the wedding festivities of Masetto and Zerlina, whom he immediately tries to seduce, until Elvira interrupts. In the midst of this, Anna and Ottavio arrive to ask Giovanni for help in capturing her father’s murderer. Watching Giovanni in action, Anna realizes the truth, and again calls for vengeance on her father’s killer. Ottavio, for whom the sun rises and sets on Anna, will do anything for her. (As a point of contrast, Ascot Man once claimed that, although he would willingly sacrifice his life for me—in some hypothetical instance where this might be needed—he would never ever do dishes. Apparently, in this future life of leisure, I wouldn’t have to do them either, but somehow this wasn’t really the selling point he thought it was.)

Anyway, Ottavio (who I’m pretty sure would do the dishes if Anna asked him to nicely), along with a disguised Anna and Elvira, crashes the party that Don Giovanni is throwing to woo Zerlina away from the jealous Masetto. When Zerlina cries out from an adjoining room, the three guests unmask themselves and declare that Giovanni must pay for his crimes. However, Giovanni once again escapes his accusers and, after a long series of digressions involving Leporello disguised as his master, ends up in a cemetery, sitting below the grave and statue of Anna’s father.

Here the opera takes a turn to the supernatural, as the statue seems to come alive and solemnly intones to Giovanni “Di rider finirai pria dell’aurora” (Your laughter will end before dawn). While a terrified Leporello looks on in horror, Giovanni insists on inviting the statue to dinner.

Note: While I mostly wasn’t impressed with the sets of this production (I really didn’t get the mirrors at all; they weren’t used and therefore seemed rather pointless), the cemetery looked great. The woman next to me was notably excited when she finally realized that one of the “statues” was in fact a real person.

The graveyard set. Photo by Cory Weaver.

The opera concludes with Giovanni eating a lavish dinner while being serenaded by musicians playing opera tunes, including a sly nod to “Non più andrai” from Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro. When the ghost of Anna’s father finally arrives, he offers Giovanni a last chance to repent, but Giovanni will have none of it and he’s dragged down to Hell. This final death scene was well acted on Lucas Meachem’s part, but the smoke was rather uneven and looked a bit awkward from our vantage point in Dress Circle.

Don Giovanni’s last supper. Photo by Cory Weaver.

All in all, I really enjoyed this opera more than I thought I would, especially after the tepid critical reception it has gotten. Granted, if I had already seen Don Giovanni many times, I suppose I might be more critical. I wasn’t very impressed with the set, which I had really been looking forward to after seeing the initial press photos. However, I loved Andrea Viotti’s costumes. How could I not when they were mostly pinks and purples?

Ellie Dehn as Donna Anna in her beautiful lavender gown.
Photo by Cory Weaver.

And the opera itself is truly a masterwork with gorgeous music throughout and some really beautiful arias. I loved the bit with what I now know was the conductor, Nicola Luisotti, playing fortepiano.

I thought the women outsang the men, especially early on. This was a bit unusual, as I normally think the sopranos are the ones that get drowned out by the orchestra in the War Memorial Opera House. Kate Lindsey (Zerlina), in her San Francisco debut, stood out for me, not only with her vocals, but also her acting and movement, particularly during her “Batti, batti, o bel Masetto” number. I also thought Ellie Dehn (Donna Anna) was very strong, which is odd given that I remember being underwhelmed with her Countess Almaviva last year. Serena Farnocchia (Donna Elvira), also in her San Francisco debut, was fine vocally, but had an odd way of leaning during many of her numbers which was rather disconcerting. I kept wanting to straighten her out.

Mostly, I was excited to see that in an opera about such a dastardly man, the women did such a great job. Not that Lucas Meachem as Don Giovanni and Marco Vinco as Leporello didn’t, but I was worried in the beginning when I could barely hear the lovely “Notte e giorno faticar.” Luckily, this seemed to be less of a problem as the opera went on, since I think that Vinco has a nice tone and is a great actor. It was also thrilling to see Adler Fellow Ryan Kuster, who I had noticed in his tiny Turandot role earlier this month, step up to the plate for the role of Masetto. And the voice of Morris Robinson was pitch perfect as the otherwordly Commendatore statue.

The biggest downside for me was that this opera is rather long, and the heat in the balconies, while not quite fires of Hell level, did not help my endurance. But it was fun to go out from seeing a ghost in the opera house to the streets of San Francisco filled with costumed Halloween revelers.

Don Giovanni has three more performances at the War Memorial Opera House: November 2, 5, and 10.

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