Amadeus Mozart's "Don Giovanni" is as Teflon as they come. Not the character. He is slippery indeed, eluding danger while seducing woman after woman (until a brimstone-tinged end). No, it is the opera itself -- its unsettling drama and transcendent music -- that burns through any clothes a production dresses it in. "Don Giovanni" of 1787 could be staged without a whit of set and be compelling. In a way that would have been preferable to the Pittsburgh Opera's new production that opened Saturday night at the Benedum Center.
Like the many maidens and mistresses whose hopes of a life with the Rake are unfulfilled when he turns their passion into another entry in his little black book, this production by stage director Justin Way and set designer Kimm Kovac was left hanging.
Before I elaborate, let me make clear: This is a fantastic "Giovanni," led by a strong cast with ample support from conductor Antony Walker's pit orchestra. Michael Todd Simpson as Don Juan was spectacular. He oscillated between seductive smiles and misogynist sneers with a suaveness echoed in the rolling legato of his "La ci darem la mano." At any given moment he was despised or beloved; his black-and-white makeup vacillated so fast it became gray.
That is the banner color of Lorenzo da Ponte and Mozart's creation: Every character is flawed; each struggles with dark desires and shaky morality.
Blame Giovanni? Not Don Ottavio (Sean Panikkar), who pressures Donna Anna (Caitlin Lynch) to marry a scant few days after her father, the Commendatore (Hao Jiang Tian), is dead. Not Donna Anna, who cloaks her lust for Giovanni, accusing him of nearly raping her. Not Leporello (Wayne Tigges), who moralizes the entire opera about his master's amoral character only to have no problem fooling Donna Elvira (Jennifer Holloway) into thinking he is Giovanni (complete with a scramble for the door after sex). And certainly not Donna Elvira, who conveniently forgives Giovanni for her own gain, or Zerlina (Sari Gruber), who ditches her newlywed, Masetto (Joseph Barron), for Giovanni. The only aspect not obfuscated is the mirror the opera turns on anyone who watches it.
- Where: Benedum Center, Downtown
- When: 7 p.m. Tuesday; 8 p.m. Friday; and 2 p.m. Sunday
- Tickets: Start at $10; 412-456-6666 or pittsburghopera.org
But even as Mr. Way choreographed the action in an effectively unaffected manner, he and Mr. Kovac let a great opportunity go by, something the Don never would. The set was dominated by a bullring that would encompass the audience were it extended (appropriately putting us in this tale). It was a befitting structure, with the actuality of the setting in Seville and the suggestion of the epic struggle therein. But how this could have been better played out! Imagine a recasting of Giovanni as the matador, and the bull; or the cast as caste, sitting in society's upper and lower realms.
Instead, the blockades and ring wall were annoying obstacles and the coliseum's flimsy two-dimensional columns distracted when they wavered. Don't think I am asking for too bold a presentation. The second act featured a mammoth, Monty Python-esque photo of an angel statue when we hear the Commendatore again. That was silly when the creative pair had a chance to be profound. And an empty "royal chair" high above the bullring -- perhaps signifying the absence of morality or God -- did not do the trick. Too bad as the two did the lion's share already: a fantastic conception, but it demanded more.
With commanding affectation and a gorgeously chestnut tone, Mr. Tigges was a worthy counterbalance to Mr. Simpson. Ms. Holloway had less stage presence, but a pleasant voice and an expressiveness that came to the fore in "Mi tradi," in which Elvira lays bare her conflicted soul. How remarkable was the orchestra here accompanying her? It seemed to breathe like an accordion squeezed by Mr. Walker. From the hell-bent to the heavenly, the orchestra was potent.
Mr. Tian delivered his ghostly role with substance (he remains one of the best singers to have performed with the opera, just always in smaller roles). Mr. Panikkar's lovely tenor and Ms. Lynch's lighter-than-normal tone meshed well. Mr. Barron? He was such a hoot as the frustrated Masetto across from the soubrette soprano, Ms. Gruber. But this was Mr. Simpson's night. Don Juan, at least, never misses an opportunity to close the deal.