Opera Warhorses

An appreciation and analysis of the 'Standard Repertory' of opera

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Ildar Abdrazakov is Don Giovanni in the Pascoe Production’s Revival – Washington National Opera, October 7, 2012

October 12th, 2012

Two weeks prior to this performance, I attended a pre-performance lecture at the Los Angeles Opera, presented by the evening’s conductor, Music Director James Conlon. His thesis is that Mozart’s “Don Giovanni”, the opera he was to conduct, is impossible to know completely. Whatever one’s interpretation of the events occurring the last day on earth of the opera’s title character, the opera and its libretto give too little information about Giovanni for there ever to be a consensus on how to play the character or to set the opera.

In these days in which theatrical imagination infuses itself into operatic production, “Don Giovanni” invites the application of a myriad of ideas as how to stage and perform it. Two weeks after the Conlon-conducted revival of a famous production of the dramma giocoso on West Coast [see Ildebrando D’Arcangelo’s Roguish Libertine, James Conlon’s Impressive Conducting, in Insightful “Don Giovanni” – Los Angeles Opera, September 22, 2012], I attended a different production of the opera on the East  coast

British Production Designer and Stage Director John Pascoe has worked on the opera throughout his career, notably at the Washington National Opera. Much of his thinking was contained in his 2007 production for that company, which returned to the Kennedy Center this Fall.

The production is set vaguely in Pascoe’s idea of a Spain that is both Royalist and Fascist in its inclinations. The “men of a certain class” wear uniforms,  underscoring Don Ottavio’s statement to Donna Anna that Don Giovanni could not have done anything wrong because “he’s one of us”. But Pascoe’s expressed thoughts about class and politics don’t go much beyond this. Other ideas predominate.

[Below: the spirits of women drive Don Giovanni (Ildar Abdrazakov, center) to his ultimate fate as the Stone Guest (Solomon Howard, in shadows behind him) drags him behind the closing door; edited image, based on a Scott Suchman photograph, courtesy of the Washington National Opera.]

Giovanni Gets the Wilis

In Pascoe’s “Don Giovanni” the Don is brought down not by only the Stone Guest, the monument memorializing the Commendatore, the man whom he killed and whose daughter he ravaged, but by wili as well. The idea of disembodied spirits or other manifestations of disaffected or seductive women altering the fate of men is a myth that surfaces in many 19th century performance works. Adam’s ballet Giselle, Puccini’s “Le Villi”, Dvorak’s “Rusalka”, Wagner’s “Rheingold”, even Johann Strauss’ “Die Fledermaus” deal with them in one way or another.

Pascoe’s wili are portrayed by dancers in wispy frocks who appear first behind the scrim in the opera’s prelude, then play in an all-wili orchestra in the final scene (all disappearing by the arrival of the Stone Guest), reappearing to assist that Guest, the ghost of the slain Commendatore, in his mission to alter Giovanni’s fate eternally. (In an example of Pascoe’s endlessly inventive imagination, one of the wili, who is engaged in passionate foreplay with Giovanni, tries to lure Donna Elvira into a three-way with Giovanni and herself.)

The exotic costumes of the principals, particularly Donna Elvira, Donna Anna and Don Giovanni, inspired by the outlandish and often sexually provocative images in the action hero comic books, were another Pascoe signature.

[Below:the John Pascoe designs for the costumes of, from left to right, Donna Elvira, Don Giovanni and Donna Anna; resized image of a 2007 copyrighted drawing, from the Washington Post.]

Donna Elvira, whom the opera informs us did spend a torrid three nights with Don Giovanni in the Spanish town of Burgos, arrives with a baby and an accompanying nun who provides a more maternal support system for the baby than she seems to get from Elvira during the course of the opera. Elvira wears a costume that, in 2007, reminded some observers of the comic character Cat-woman. (Pascoe replied that if you think of her Elvira as a Lioness and Giovanni as a Lion, you will get what he’s intends by her costume.)

[Below: Don Giovanni (Ildar Abdrazakov, left) in a momentary revival of his passionate feelings for Donna Elvira (Barbara Frittoli, right); edited image, based on a Scott Suchman photograph, courtesy of the Washington National Opera.]

Among the Pascoe’s Royalist social events is a masquerade ball in a structure at stage left with guests leaving across the stage, adding a bit of rationale as to why Don Giovanni is masked when he enters Donna Anna’s bedroom and why she doesn’t recognize who is there.

We are immediately drawn into the mayhem of the first scene in which Don Giovanni (Russian basso Ildar Abrazakov) enters into the fight with Donna Anna’s father vicious enough that Giovanni (who uses a gun) is knocked down and is on the ground next to the dying Commendatore (American basso Solomon Howard), making the question by Leporello (British bass baritone Andrew Foster-Williams) as to who is alive and who is dead is more than just a laugh line.

[Below: Leporello (Andrew Foster-Williams) shares with Donna Elvira (Barbara Frittoli) the list of the couple of thousand woman with whom his boss has had sexual encounters; edited image, based on a Scott Suchman photograph, courtesy of the Washington National Opera.]

Donna Anna (Meagan Miller in her company debut), demonstrating that she is serious about revenge, stoops to gather some of her father’s blood and smears it on the face of her lover, Don Ottavio (Argentinian tenor Juan Francisco Gatell).

For the next scene the back spaces in Pascoe’s  inventive unit sets are brightly lit to represent a cafe or cantina, where sunglasses are the preferred eyewear.  It is to this sun-drenched establishment that Zerlina (Argentinian soprano Victoria Cangemi) and her bridegroom Masetto (Russian-American baritone Aleksey Bogdanov) bring their wedding party.

[Below: Zerlina’s wedding party arrive at a nearby cafe; edited image, based on a Jeff Davis photograph of the Pascoe production at the Dallas Opera.]

Cangemi, whom I had last seen at the San Francisco Opera in a Handel opera [see Graham, Swenson, Prina Luminous in S. F.’s Stellar “Ariodante” – June 15, 2008] was a sprightly Zerlina.

Although I’ve seen Bogdanov in smaller roles, both at Washington National Opera and at the Glimmerglass Festival, Masetto is a much more important role with a hefty share of Mozart’s great music. He proved himself a fine Mozartean, soon to be ready for even larger assignments.

[Below Don Giovanni (Ildar Abdrazakov, right) explains to Zerlina (Victoria Cangemi, left) why she must revise her wedding ceremony to marry him instead of her intended; edited image, based on a Scott Suchman photograph, courtesy of the Washington National Opera.]

Don Giovanni, to Masetto’s obvious (and wholly justifiable anger), works his charm on Zerlina, attempting to persuade her that she should marry him, thereby becoming a noblewoman, and consummate their marriage on the spot. Leporello arrives to help, dressed as a friar (but wearing Groucho glasses and mustache), but so does Donna Elvira, with Giovanni’s baby and the nun, offering Zerlina her protection.

The death, burial and resurrection of the Commendatore in a space of less that a day is one of the opera’s mysteries, but at least in Pascoe’s production there is a funeral service in which the Anna, Ottavio, Giovanni and Elvira can show the dead man proper respect (and Mozart’s musicality). Frittoli’s Donna Elvira sang Mi tradi underneath a large statue of the Virgin.

[Below: Pascoe’s sets for the church where a requiem mass might be sung; edited image, based on a Jeff Davis photograph of the Pascoe production at the Dallas Opera.]

Perhaps maids suggest clotheslines and certainly sheets provide places for hiding and disguises. Pascoe uses them skillfully in a scene in which Don Giovanni has Leporello dress as him so that the Giovanni can both rid himself of Elvira and pursue her maid.

[Below: the scene of the serenade; edited image, based on a Jeff Davis photograph of the John Pascoe production at the Dallas Opera.]

Lest the audience lose track of her determination for vengeance, Miller’s Donna Anna sings Non mir dir  under a large portrait of her father, the Commendatore.

[Below: Donna Anna (Meagan Miller, left) discusses with Donna Elvira (Barbara Frittoli, right) what should be done next; edited image, based on a Scott Suchman photograph, courtesy of the Washington National Opera.]

During much of Pascoe’s production, there are bands of citizens, including all of peasants, who are frequently cross the stage in pursuit of Don Giovanni and Leporello. To escape the search parties, the two hide in a graveyard. By means of Leporello’s flashlight, they read the Commendatore’s epitaph. The statue appears very much alive as it accepts Giovanni’s invitation to dinner.

[Below: Masetto (Aleksey Bogdanov, left) and Don Ottavio (Juan Francisco Gatell) have begun to lose patience with Leporello (Andrew Foster-Williams, center), whoever he’s supposed to be at that moment; edited image, based on a Scott Suchman photograph, courtesy of the Washington Naitonal Opera.]

For the festivities that Don Giovanni has prepared for the arrival of his Stone Guest, including the wili musicians, he sits alone eating at his dining table. When the Commendatore’s Ghost arrives, he cuts the dining table in half. Demanding Giovanni’s penitence, which is refused him, he and the wilis pull and push him through his doorway to his oblivion.

[Below: the Commendatore (Solomon Howard) cuts the dining table in two; edited image, based on a Scott Suchman photograph, courtesy of the Washington National Opera.]

French conductor Philippe Anguin, music director of the Washington National Opera, presided over the orchestra. American designer Donald Edmund Thomas was responsible for lighting. Diane Coburn Bruning was the choreographer and Robb Hunter the fight director.

Final Thoughts

I have admired John Pascoe’s inventive production of “LucreziaBorgia”, which I had seen in both Washington DC [The Donizetti Revival, Second Stage: Radvanovsky, Grigolo in Pascoe’s WNO “Lucrezia Borgia” – November 17, 2008] and San Francisco [Fleming, Fabiano, Frizza Fuel San Francisco Opera’s Flaming, Fulfilling First “Lucrezia Borgia” – September 23, 2011 and A Second Look: “Lucrezia Borgia” at the San Francisco Opera – October 2, 2011].

Special mention must go to Andrew Foster-Williams, already familiar to Washington audiences as Albert [see Francesco Meli, Sonia Ganassi in Theatrically Absorbing “Werther” – Washington National Opera, May 14, 2012] whose Leporello was a standout performance, even in this first rate cast.

But the biggest of the big money roles in “Don Giovanni” is the title role itself. Abdrazakov easily met the role’s vocal challenges, and excelled at fast-paced acting, encompassing all the comic wit he displayed as Mustafa (his previous assignment at Washington National Opera [see The Italian Girl in D.C. – May 18, 2006.]

Abdrazakov’s star continues to rise, and those with an opportunity to see him in live performance should plan to do so.

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