Review: San Francisco Opera’s new “Don Giovanni” lacks that vital spark, runs through November 10, 2011
Of all Mozart’s operas, Don Giovanni, holds a special place. A fusion of tragic and comic impulses based on the legendary scoundrel Don Juan and set to breathtakingly gorgeous music, it never fails to entertain. A new production of this masterpiece opened at San Francisco Opera last Saturday (October 15, 2011) and while enjoyable enough, it failed to ignite the passions. Inconsistent singing and unconvincing acting were the main culprits. The production is hinged on the all important title role filled by baritone Lucas Meachem, a former Adler Fellow, with a rich and glorious voice who has delivered several stunning performances at SF Opera. He was vocally adequate but lacked the commanding presence─charisma, swagger and roguishness ─ to be utterly beguiling and magnetizing, which is essential to the rake’s part. His chemistry with the ladies─Ellie Dehn as Donna Anna, Serena Farnocchia as Donna Elvira and Kate Lindsey as Zerlina─was plain flat, both when he was required to be sexy or violent. He played Don straight, as a cold-hearted jerk, and wore aviator-style sunglasses throughout the performance and a stylish dark leather coat which gave the impression that, while he had wealth and power, he was basically a rich coward in hiding.
Music director Nicola Luisotti, by contrast, was the life of the party, bursting with energy and passion and thoroughly engaged with his orchestra at all times. As magnetizing as he was to watch though, he was not able to elicit the nuanced performance he pulled from his orchestra in Turandot, which opened SF Opera’s fall season. At times on Saturday, the orchestra outpaced the singers. For those who have been watching Maestro Nicola Luisottiwork his magic since he joined SF Opera as its music director in 2009, the choice of three Italians, who all have their U.S. debuts─director Gabriele Lavia, set designer Alessandro Camera, and costume designer Andrea Viotti─ seems evidence of his broadening influence at San Francisco Opera. Despite his reputation in Italy as an acclaimed film
director, Mr. Lavia’s production was not a particularly imaginative or fluid take on this musical masterpiece. He placed the story in traditional period setting and there it decidedly sat with Don Giovanni as a brute. Andrea Viotti’s lush period costumes were executed in restrained hues with the exception of Don Giovanni, who wore a long leather coat and sunglasses.
Most striking was Alessandro Cameo’s minimalistic set design. As the opera opened, 22 large (6’ wide x 16’ tall) dark mirrors in ornate gilded frames descended dramatically onto a stage that was virtually empty stage, save for a few scattered Louis XV style chairs. Coming fresh from Richard Serra’s drawing retrospectiveat SFMOMA, I was struck by how powerfully and elegantly geometric forms can define space. As these mirrors descended, shifted, and settled in at different heights, they impacted the viewer’s sense of
mass and gravity, ushering in a dark and ominous presence, and making for an experience that was as visceral as it was visual. (Click here to read about how these special polycarbonate mirrors were constructed backstage at SF Opera). The program notes indicate that Lavia’s symbolic take on the mirrors–reflecting on the essence of man and witnessing his many sides. That said, the initial brilliance of this grand entrance of the mirrors wore thin when it was repeated in the same fashion a few more times in subsequent acts. Aside from the mirrors, the stage remained quite empty, save for tombstones and mist in the cemetery scene and an elegantly set dinner table in the final scene where Don Giovanni’s feast is interrupted by the Commendatore who ushers his descent to Hell.
Stand-outs: Italian bass Marco Vinco, making his United States debut as Leporello, Don Gioivanni’s discontented servant, who is actually on stage more than any other singer, delivered a thoroughly convincing, endearing and humorous performance. Bass Morris Robinson, also making his SF Opera debut was exceptional in the role of the Commendatore. Mezzo-soprano Kate Lindsay, also debuting at SF Opera, as Zerlina, the young girl who catches Don Giovanni’s eye at her wedding party to Masetto, sang lyrically in her duet “Là ci darem la mano” “There we will be hand in hand “) but will be remembered for the way she suggestively spread her legs on stage.
The epilogue was cut in this Luisotti-selected mix of Vienna and Prague versions of the opera. All told, it is Mozart’s music that shines most in this production.
Performance Dates: Sung in Italian with English supertitles, there are seven remaining performances scheduled for October 21 (8 p.m.), October 23 (2 p.m.), October 26 (7:30 p.m.), October 29 (8 p.m.), November 2 (7:30 p.m.), November 5 (2 p.m.) and November 10 (7:30 p.m.), 2011.
Bruce Lamont Lectures: All performances will feature an informative Opera Talk by educator and chorus director, Bruce Lamott. Talks begin 55 minutes before each performance in the orchestra section of the War Memorial Opera House and are free of charge to patrons with tickets for the corresponding performance.
Details: Tickets are priced from $21 to $330 and may be purchased at www.sfopera.com or through the San Francisco Opera Box Office [301 Van Ness Avenue (at Grove Street), or by phone at (415) 864-3330]. Standing Room tickets go on sale at 10 a.m. on the day of each performance; tickets are $10 each, cash only.
The War Memorial Opera House is located at 301 Van Ness Avenue at Grove Street, San Francisco. Casting, programs, schedules, and ticket prices are subject to change. For further information: www.sfopera.com.
Times flies. In the last days of our glorious Indian summer, a subtle reminder. If you haven’t seen the spectacular show “Calder to Warhol: Introducing the Fisher Collection,” you should: its three-month run ends Sunday, September 19, 2010. This is one of the largest exhibitions SFMOMA has mounted and it is the lynchpin of its 75th anniversary program, representing the museum’s latest coup—a novel partnership that will secure its place among an elite handful of the world’s contemporary art museums. The show presents 161 of the 1,100 artworks in the iconic collection that the late Gap founder Donald Fisher collected with his wife Doris over 40 years and essentially loaned to SFMOMA for a very long time. The details are still being worked out but a Fisher Family trust will own the works; a Fisher family foundation will interface with SFMOMA; and SFMOMA will house the collection for the next 100 years in its new museum-addition, thereby accessing one of the greatest private collections of modern and contemporary art in the world.
The enthusiasm is well-deserved— the Fisher collection is a private collection like no other, with a breadth and depth that is rarely achieved. It is particularly distinguished for its concentration of works by key artists Alexander Calder, Chuck Close, Philip Guston, Ellsworth Kelly, Anselm Kiefer, Roy Lichtenstein, Agnes Martin, Gerhard Richter, Richard Serra, Cy Twombly, and Andy Warhol. It includes extensive groupings of seminal pieces by several of these artists and traces their creative evolution through entire bodies of works. Gary Garrels, Elise S. Haas Senior Curator of Painting and Sculpture, has done an exceptional job of showcasing this sampling over the 4th and 5th floors of the museum and the rooftop garden.
As SFMOMA director Neal Benezra put it, “This is the culmination of decades. Of course, they had money and used it well, but money and enthusiasm don’t always lead to something of real substance. Don was very active on the SFMOMA board for years along with Doris and now their son Robert. They watched and participated and donated several significant pieces prior to this, demonstrating a strong commitment to contemporary art….This is just the beginning; there’s much more to come.”
Calder to Warhol: Introducing the Fisher Collection, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, through Sunday, September, 19, 2010. www.sfmoma.org 151 3rd Street, San Francisco, CA, (415) 357-4000. Closed Wednesdays. Adults: $18.