Opera Review: “Don Giovanni” at the Kennedy Center

The Washington National Opera emphasizes comedy in Mozart’s masterpiece.

By: Sudip Bose

“The three finest things God ever made,” wrote Gustave Flaubert in 1846, “are the sea, Hamlet, and Mozart’s Don Giovanni.” Less pithy but no less ardent about Don Giovanni’s canonic status was another Frenchman, the composer Charles Gounod, who described the opera as “a luminous apparition, a kind of revelatory vision” that embraced “the beautiful and the terrible,” combining “truth of expression” and “perfect beauty.” This was a work of art, Gounod believed, “to which the centuries must pay homage.”

It is, to be sure, the most perfect fusion of tragedy and comedy in all of opera, though this duality—evident right from the overture, shifting suddenly from a dark, formidable D minor to a bright and spritely D major—suggests a few interpretive possibilities. Do you approach the piece primarily as a tragedy injected with comic relief (as the legendary conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler did)? Or as a comedy that happens to contain some grave scenes, remembering that Mozart himself classified Don Giovanni as an opera buffa? The Washington National Opera’s revival of director John Pascoe’s production takes the latter approach. And though the premiere last Thursday night was successful and assured, it did seem to lack some power, largely because the work’s darker elements were glossed over.

This isn’t to suggest that bass Ildar Abdrazakov lacks the heft required to play Don Giovanni; on the contrary, he has a big, sonorous voice (that’s equally sweet-toned and lyrical), and he has enough charisma to play the classic rake, a character at once seductive, cruel, alluring, and selfish, interested only in a life of wine, women, and yet more women. Yet in general, he was a gentler, more humane Giovanni. Upon killing the Commendatore in the duel that opens the work, for example, he is compassionate toward his fallen foe. And when the Don later woos the peasant girl Zerlina in the famous duet “Là ci darem la mano,” the tone Abdrazakov produced in the gentlest, quietest passages was exquisite—you really could understand how Zerlina, on her wedding day of all days, could fall for him.

Perhaps the only place Abdrazakov faltered was in the famous “Champagne Aria”—“Fin ch’han dal vino”—where he wasn’t quite agile enough to negotiate the rapid passagework. The agility Mozart calls for here isn’t mere virtuosity. The Don, after all, is constantly eluding women, escaping tricky situations, and having to think fast to outwit those who wish to hunt him down, and the brisk and nimble qualities of this music are emblematic of his character.

But does it matter that Abdrazakov’s Don isn’t the sort of relentlessly cruel and violent character that other basses have portrayed in the past?

One of the ironies of Don Giovanni is that even though the title character is in constant pursuit of sexual conquest, he spends the duration of the opera on the run, being pursued by others: by Donna Anna and Don Ottavio, who seek to avenge the Commendatore’s death; by the tortured Donna Elvira, who offers Giovanni redemption through the promise of her love; and by the dead Commendatore himself, whose shade manifests itself as the statue that comes to dinner at the opera’s end. It is responsibility, as well, from which Giovanni flees—responsibility for the crimes he’s committed, for the women he’s bedded and abandoned. His philosophy is the ultimate expression of freedom: to live outside the moral and legal bounds of a society, without anything resembling a conscience. He’s the consummate rebel—brazen sexuality being the instrument of his rebellion—and he demands a slightly darker characterization, as a consequence, than what Abdrazakov gives us.

Of the opera’s three sopranos, Barbara Frittoli is outstanding as Donna Elvira, conveying anguish, virtue, and anger in a voice that’s creamy and plush; her second-act “Mi tradì quell’alma ingrate” is a hauntingly beautiful lament. For my taste, Meagan Miller’s vibrato is a bit too wide, her sound somewhat metallic in the upper register, though she’s appropriately intense as the vengeful Donna Anna. Veronica Cangemi is a monochromatic Zerlina, though she’s best in the second act when she consoles her beaten-up fiancé, Masetto (sung with appealing menace by baritone Aleksey Bogdanov), her darker tone here giving the character both richness and depth.

Andrew Foster-Williams is excellent as the Don’s cowardly servant, Leporello, ironic and playful in the first act, full of bravura in the second; and Soloman Howard is powerful as the Commendatore. Juan Francisco Gatell sings an impassioned Don Ottavio, phrasing the long arching lines of his Act I “Della sua pace”—one of the most sublime numbers in a work composed of one sublime number after another—with elegance.

Overall, this is a well-sung Don Giovanni, though in a few instances, Mozart’s heavenly music is compromised by bits of silly stage direction. Cangemi’s lovely “Vedrai, carino” is nearly spoiled by the sight of Bogdanov crawling and slithering across the stage after her. And for me, there’s nothing sexual about Zerlina’s moving, guilt-ridden “Batti, batti, o bel Masetto,” but there is Cangemi bending over, coquettishly asking Bogdanov to spank her. There’s comedy enough in the text to make any added slapstick a distraction. And when the music and the action get deadly serious later in the piece, the audience is still, unfortunately, in the mood to laugh—an unintended consequence of hamming up the comedy at the expense of the work’s abiding darkness.

This is never an issue with the orchestra. After some spotty work in Donizetti’s Anna Bolena less than a week before, the musicians play with great power and finesse, conductor Philippe Auguin leading a magnificent performance, old-fashioned and red-blooded. In the gripping banquet scene, when the Commendatore’s statue condemns Don Giovanni to hell, the orchestra is the star, unleashing torrents of roiling music, the scales rising and falling menacingly as the Don, unrepentant to the last, finally meets his end.

Don Giovanni is at the Kennedy Center Opera House through October 13. Running time is around three hours and 15 minutes. Tickets ($25 to $300) are available via the Kennedy Center’s website. The performance on October 13 will feature singers from the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program.