Although it was written more than 200 years ago, Mozart’s Don Giovanni is an unexpectedly timely opera in the #MeToo era. A woman named Stormy… er, Donna Elvira, spurned by a small-fingered vulgarian, sets out to let everyone in ear-shot know what a sexual reprobate he is. But the object of her wrath is also the object of her obsession. Once you go Don Giovanni, it’s difficult to go back. Most of the three hours (relax — it flies by) is a lively sex romp, full of flirtatious antics and Mozart’s impossibly lively, elegant music. But eventually it turns — not just a veer, but a hard left into some of the darkest content in the canon. Remember the horror film Drag Me to Hell? Yeah, that literally happens here. It’s harrowing.
Don Giovanni (also called Don Juan) is a fictionalized libertine who stood, presumably, as a cautionary tale of excess — Dorian Gray for the Renaissance. If he’s not a callous rascal, there’s no arc. He either learns the errors of his ways and repents, or pays for them. It’s very Catholic that way.
Mozart played within the cultural rules, but he clear knew his audiences should enjoy themselves, first and foremost. His opera has all the bawdy rakishness of a Restoration comedy, where sexual conquests leave a wake of broken hearts but not much comeuppance for the central scalawag… until the end, when we are reminded, with prudish Biblical chastising, that the wages of sin is death. (I finally realized how much the final scene here was co-opted by the “Don’t Eat the Plants” coda that concludes Little Shop of Horrors.)
That could feel arresting and wrong — call it diabolus ex machina — but it’s astonishing how organic it feels. This production’s stage director, Robert Falls — known more for theater than opera — does little to foreshadow the nightmare to come, deciding instead to focus on the hedonistic bacchanalia, and seducing the audience with the wonders of amorality the way Giovanni seduces his women. (If he had lived 200 years later, he’d probably be Patient Zero.) Even the few hints at the future aren’t heavy and scary, but comic. Using costumes, sets and a style reminiscent of the 1920s, Falls presents our anti-hero as a kind of Bizzaro Gatsby: He doesn’t pine for his One True Love, but assumes if he has everyone, she’ll naturally fall within his ambit. His end is no better than Gatsby’s, but he has more fun along the way.
And so do we. Nothing about this production is anything shy of delightful, from the sets to the textbook conducting by Emmanuel Villaume to the best overall cast in an opera in memory. That is no small feat. Giovanni was played on opening night not by the marquee star, Mariusz Kwiecien, but by a last-minute replacement, baritone Craig Verm. Verm had been cast in the much smaller role of Masetto, but he stepped into the leading role with authority, fine voice, charisma… and a damned sexy mien. Everyone is pretty much beautiful here — and even better, can act the pantaloons off their parts. Verm is amazing.
But even he isn’t the primary scene-stealer. Katie Van Kooten as Donna Elvira, who pops up to cock-block Giovanni as often as possible, turns pain into laughter. Mezzo Virgine Verrez as Zerlina projects a sensual energy while remaining the naive victim of Giovanni. Laura Claycomb actually overplays a bit as Donna Anna, but her rich soprano is captivating. And best of all, baritone Kyle Ketelsen owns the Winspear stage as Leporello, Giovanni’s disgruntled valet and de facto wingman. He’s handsome and physical, expressive and sympathetic, all wrapped up in an outstanding voice. (I’d love to see him in another Mozart role, the wily Figaro, or as Sancho Panza in Massenet’s Don Quichotte.)
Although the supernatural element is a rough fit, the final 15-minute confrontation spirals the show into a deeper meaning. It sweeps you into the showdown between Don Giovanni and one of his victims with great power. It leaves you breathless. The whole production does.
— Arnold Wayne Jones
At the Winspear Opera House, April 15 and 29 at 2 p.m., April 18, 21 and 27 at 7:30 p.m. DallasOpera.org.
Pictured above: Craig Verm as Don Giovanni. Photo by Karen Almond/Dallas Opera.