Call him Don Giovanni or call him Don Juan, he is a character on to whom the morality of a given age can be pinned. Always a rake, in this time of corporations and professions requiring mandatory training against sexual predation, Mozart and his librettist da Ponte can be seen as ahead of their time. Although the current production often plays the opera as a farce, it takes little imagination to see the serious side of income inequality and class stratification, misogyny and sexual abuse, issues that are hot topics now. Always a morality play, the issues, however, were far different when Mozart’s masterpiece premiered in 1787; and one must remember, the French Revolution was just around the corner. Costuming is eighteenth centuryish but of much of the set design could only have been produced in the twenty-first. More about the fabulous and innovative production further down.
Don Giovanni (a well-cast Lucas Meachem) is a nobleman who, by his own accounting, has a voracious appetite for women and wine – apparently in that order. He has a little list of those who won’t be missed after he has conquered them. Leporello (Craig Colclough), his servant, maintains the book length accounting at the Don’s behest. At one point Leporello informs us it holds the names of over 1800 conquests. We see hundreds of names slowly scrawling across the stage as the overture plays. Conductor James Conlon, in his wonderful program essay, informs us the exhausting number is more like 2065. On a side note, modern real life figures have boasted even more grandly: Fidel Castro claimed 35,000; Wilt Chamberlain only a paltry 20,000. Do the math. It is impossible. I digress.
We meet three of his cross-class victims: Donna Anna, the aristocrat, (Guanqun Yu), Donna Elvira, the presumably more middle class Donna Elvira (Tiffany Townsend in this Performance, stand in for Isabel Leonard), and Zerlina, the peasant (Meigui Zhang). They have all been seduced by the Don’s professed adoration, but abandoned after his conquest. Zerlina apparently fights him off at the last minute. A tribute to his seductive skills, all the women, in spite of their anger, momentarily flirt with taking him back in the end. As he flees Anna’s house he is chased by her father, The Commendatore (Peixin Chen), who tries to catch Giovanni but is killed by him instead. Anna presents as the epitome of coddled fragility. Elvira is just plain old mad. She is not fragile and she wants to punish him with her rage. Zerlina is a peasant bride bedecked for her wedding, but she too is seduced by the Don. Despite the several flavors of rage, they are all vulnerable to his further seduction. This, dear reader is but the set up.
Director Kasper Holten has assembled a cast who can act as well as sing. Foremost is Lucas Meachem’s Don Giovanni. He even seduces his servant, Leporello who at times resists facilitating the Don’s narcissistic antics. Meachem’s vitality is bewitching. He seduces the audience as well as his victims. He is no Harvey Weinstein, that is for sure. He makes his conquests with tenderness. He is as believable as his actions are abhorrent. Tiffany Townsend may be a stand in but she is magnificent as the furious Donna Elvira. The ovation she received at the final curtain was proof if more were needed.
Music Center audiences are likely familiar with Scenic Designer Es Devlin’s set for the Lehman Trilogy. Her designs are referred to as sculptural installations. I am not sure that captures the feeling. Projection Designer Luke Halls also collaborated with Devlin on Lehman, but the structure here is much more dynamic and original.
How can I describe this production? It is so strong, so commanding it almost feels like there should be a place for it in the list of characters. At first glance it appears to be a mostly two dimensional representation of a rather grand 18th or 19th century façade. Look carefully and there are doors, functional and not. That is where the familiar ends. The center turns out to be a large cube, à la the Lehman Trilogy. The cube rotates to reveal different interiors with Escher-like staircases. Navigating this action packed set is not easy, but navigate they do. What is remarkable are the projections that leave one wondering how they were accomplished. There is no apparent scrim. At times there is graffiti on the cube that turns perfectly with the structure. Oversized splashes of impossibly red blood flow dramatically across the scene. Don Giovanni stands at an upstairs window and is actively sucked in by a kaleidoscopic vortex and we in the audience are too. At times there are gigantic eyes amid abstract scrawl. I could go on but you still would have a hard time painting a picture. It truly has to be seen and it is well worth the journey.
If you can, come for the music, come for the voices, come for the acting, come to be overwhelmed by the staging. This joint production of the Houston Grand Opera, Covent Garden, Gran Theatre del Liceu and the Israeli Opera currently on the Chandler stage is worth the effort.