When the new production of Ivo van Hove’s “Don Giovanni” begins at the Metropolitan Opera, tendrils of smoke rise from the pavement onto the stage – as if all hell is already simmering below, ready to drag down the dissolute seducer of the title.
Even though his staging dresses age-old figures in contemporary attire and places them in a recognizably (if oddly anonymous) courtyard of modern architecture, it’s clear that van Hove believes in good old-fashioned damnation. He is ready to embrace, even austerely, the supernatural side of this Mozart classic, its surreal theatrical conventions.
Known for his simple, hard-boiled adaptations of plays like “A View From the Bridge” and “The Crucible,” van Hove makes no effort here to prove all of the plot’s deceptions, maskings, misunderstandings, and ghosts. If someone says they’re someone else, the other characters just accept it, even though they’re obviously still themselves.
We are in the real world, the staging suggests, but we are still suspending disbelief.
Having opened at the Met on Friday after debuting in 2019 at the Paris Opera, van Hove’s oeuvre is smooth, flexible and nimble enough to walk the tightrope of any hit ‘Don Giovanni’: don’t stop. on the darkness, depth and strangeness of the work, on the one hand – and, on the other hand, not to suffocate his spirit, even stupidity.
It’s easier said than done, and “Giovanni” – long, circular, slippery – is one of the toughest assignments for an opera director, with attempts tending to fall into either relentless monotony , or in an irritating flippancy. Three successive Met productions, introduced in 1990, 2004 and 2011, failed to win much love from critics or audiences.
The most recent, directed by Michael Grandage, was particularly cluttered and dusty. Compared to this, van Hove’s direction is, even with the ominous wisps of smoke trailing, a breath of fresh air, with an excellent cast and led with vitality without exaggeration by Nathalie Stutzmann.
The set, designed by Jan Versweyveld, surrounds a courtyard with menacing concrete buildings that move and rotate almost imperceptibly, so you can never quite master the spaces. The absence of a solitary face on the facades evokes the paintings of Chirico and Hopper; hidden staircases nod to MC Escher’s winding labyrinths; and certain arched openings suggest the Palazzo della Civiltà Italiana in Rome, a symbol of Mussolini’s fascist regime.
So this world is stark and hostile from the start – lit (also by Versweyveld) in different shades and from different angles, all cold, and with costumes (by An D’Huys) as gray as the buildings.
But for all the sternness, the heat of emotion pulsates in the lives of the troubled people on stage, who cling to each other one moment before pushing away the next – kissing, then running.
This is the modus operandi of Don Giovanni, the vaunted libertine whose murder of the father of a woman he attempts to rape sets the plot in motion. At nearly 60, baritone Peter Mattei still looks and sounds startlingly youthful in the title role.
But there’s a sense here that Giovanni’s appetites, infinite as they are, have settled into a kind of quiet routine over the years. It is not a harassed, desperate or angry interpretation of the character, nor even, on the contrary, particularly boring, and the most piquant moments, like “Fin ch’han dal vino” (the “Aria de Champagne”), were the only times Mattei seemed uncomfortable on Friday.
Those moments didn’t really work out dramatically either, since his Giovanni isn’t prickly, but rather serene and down-to-earth, rather sober but a little ironic, gray-tempered – even if he’s always a persuasive and practiced novelist.
In the character’s long, tantalizing lines when in preparation, Mattei’s tone is buttery but airy, as compelling as it was when he first sang the role at the Met 20 years ago. . His duets with soprano Ying Fang, a delicate but sexy Zerlina with a brilliant voice but gently rounded contours, slowed time almost to hypnosis.
Soprano Federica Lombardi, an elegant Donna Anna, here a figure almost as sultry as Giovanni, lacked the core anchored in her sound that would give it more fullness and smoothness, but she produced a penetrating, precise, often exciting, especially in confident high notes. Pressed but not beyond her limits in “Mi tradi”, soprano Ana María Martínez was sympathetic without missing the ridiculousness in the pleading dignity of the unfortunate Donna Elvira, her voice warming throughout the performance.
Sounding solid like Leporello, Giovanni’s valet, bass-baritone Adam Plachetka was less satisfying playing neutrality than Mattei was. Plachetka seemed to want to do more than van Hove gave him, and so took an edgy hustle that seemed involuntary.
Poised and passionate throughout all of Mozart’s ruthless writing for Don Ottavio, tenor Ben Bliss added assertive ornamentation in the repeated sections of his arias. It was a way to give her character a bit more complexity than usual, but it felt odd since such ornamentation was rare among the rest of the cast. Bass-baritone Alexander Tsymbalyuk was a suavely commanding Commendatore; bass-baritone Alfred Walker, though plausibly aggrieved as Masetto, seemed faded.
Stutzmann, music director of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, makes a brilliant Met debut with not one but two new Mozart stagings; Simon McBurney’s “Die Zauberflöte” opens May 19.
The orchestra seemed to him polished, heavy without being too heavy, the winds magnificently present in the textures from the opening, the singers never covered. There was no sense in rushing as a lazy way to convey liveliness, but the tenderness never got bogged down either.
It’s very good work, just like van Hove’s, even if his ideas don’t all go very well. References to Mozart’s time during the ball scene at the end of Act I include, oddly enough, a slew of masked and cheaply dressed mannequins in the windows.
And Giovanni’s shift in the final scene – the dinner party where he prepares for the visit of the man he murdered – to a mania for throwing pasta, juggling bread and knocking over the table seems come out of nowhere. If the fact is that this break with the character we know is sudden and agonizing, it still does not convince.
But what happens minutes later does. For all of the production’s eternally smoky hellfire notes, Giovanni’s end comes amidst a vision of the underworld, projected onto the set, that’s much darker – and more ominous – than the faint flames. usual.
Then the buildings return to their original position, revealing sunny, cheerful plants and billowing curtains where there was once only implacable stone. The implication – backed by the perky music, if not the most ambivalent text, sung in the finale by the surviving characters – is that the elimination of the single rotten apple will let the society’s garden bloom.
The idea is reassuring, but implausible. Perhaps van Hove, for all his dark austerity, is actually an optimist at heart.
Until June 2 at the Metropolitan Opera in Manhattan; metopera.org.