‘Don Giovanni’: Mozart’s World in Full at the Opera

Cab drivers ask about these things. “Long, yes?” he asked. “Very long?” “Yes, it was long,” I replied. It clocked in at just under three-and-a-half hours. But maybe not long enough.

When you are talking about Mozart’s “Don Giovanni,” time, quite often, but not always, flies. Ideally, you forget where you are, forget all your troubles, and become immersed, like going under, knowing you don’t have to worry about holding your breath.

“I saw ‘Amadeus’ when I was young. Mozart, yes, and the ending was about that, yes?” asked the cab driver. I saw “Amadeus,” too, when I was young, or not so young. Ever since I’ve wanted to see the opera, considered by many to be the best opera ever by anyone, no comfort to Salieri there. Well, here we were at last, better late than never.

This may be a shameful thing to admit, seeing—and hearing—“Don Giovanni” for the first time at my age, and I am a little bit ashamed. But not so much. On the other hand, it makes you feel chipper and young, knowing that there may yet be other great things to experience for the first time—winning the Powerball lottery, finding a signed Dickens book, meeting the Dalai Lama or Angelina Jolie, whichever.

Right now, there’s still time to see the Washington National Opera Company’s superb, bracing production of “Don Giovanni” (Sept. 29, Oct. 1, 4, 7 , 9 and 13), and it’s really, really worth it, whether you’ve seen it 100 times or never, whether you’ve got all the time in the world or the clock is running out.

You get a real sense of what Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was all about during the course of this production and it’s not actor Tom Hulce’s giggling man-child, but a deft, facile, include-the-whole-experience, bona fide ahead-of-his-time, modernist genius of a composer, raising every form and bit he touched to another level. That’s why “Don Giovanni” is considered the best—it lacks nothing except brevity. Wagner may have thought he was in the running, but Richard Wagner lacked a capacity for humor of any sort, at least in his operas. “Don Giovanni,” disconcertingly unclassifiable, is rich in humor—low and high, sly and naughty, earthy and witty, acting as a kind of sneezing pepper for an opera that wears and discards the mantle of a dark, philosophical tragedy until the end. In short, this is serious stuff that’s also funny, sensual and sexy, uncommonly deep and grandiose. And it flits from serenades to dances, to arias, to soaring symphonic orchestral music, sometimes all at the same time with such ease that you barely take breath between transitions. The music—the real, meaningful content—is a joy.

A friend of mine asked me the other day if I was going to see “Don Quixote” that night. I, of course, corrected him, but afterwards, thought that’s not so far off. “Giovanni” or Don Juan is not that far removed from the Spanish knight tilting at windmills and seeing saints in sinners and his trusty sidekick Sancho Panza are not that far apart. They’re exact opposites of extremes: Quixote has banished thoughts of sex and seduction totally from his mind—Giovanni thinks of nothing else. Quixote rides to the rescue, Giovanni is the man people—women—need rescuing from. Giovanni is all about his id, his world view and in that sense he is Quixote’s twin.

But life and operas and music and genius aren’t that simple. What we’re offered at the Opera House is a palette of complications paced close to perfection by director John Pascoe, who’s also provide the oversized sets and the odd costumes, apparently set in Franco’s Spain, but here and there mixing it up with Mozart’s time. He puts you right in the action—and there is a lot of action—with Giovanni, having attempted to seduce and then rape Donna Anna, killing her father and on the lam with his exasperated servant Leperello in the first 20 minutes or so.

And away we go, always sidetracked when Giovanni spies an available woman or unavailable (it matters not). He’s pursued by Donna Elvira whom he dumped and left with child, he spies a fetching young peasant girl Zerlina on the day of her wedding to Masetto and attempts to seduce her not once but any time he can, he’s hunted by Donna Anna and her fiancé Don Ottavio who want to avenge her father’s murder, and he’s chased by a mob before the statue of the man he murdered comes to his villa for dinner and takes him at last away to hell, unrepentant to the last.

And that’s not the half of it.

It pays to have a great “Don Giovanni” in this part. He must have the chops, the voice and the looks and Russian bass Ildar Abrazakov has all three, because you have to, if not be sympathetic to Giovanni, at least feel his powers. Otherwise, we’re just dealing with a rapist, a boor and a killer. For a bass, Abrazakov sings with great power, sure, but also with surprising range. Consider for a moment when he’s decides to seduce yet another woman with a street-level balcony serenade (the famous “deh, vieni alla finestra”). He’s on his knees, the voice lowers, pleading, sweet, an ode to beauty and desire, it’s pitched to passion and wanting, it’s so moving you can imagine someone’s really smart and pretty sister falling for it. It caused at least one man in the audience to elicit a loud “Bravo!” and loud clapping.

The cast is more than supportive: American soprano Meagan Miller, supple, strong and working with throat trouble and triumphing as Donna Anna; Italian soprano Barbara Frittoli, singing freely and with great passion as the conflicted and in-love Donna Elvira; Argentine soprano Veronica Cangemi as the bewildered peasant girl Zerlina, injecting continual fresh energy into the proceedings.

In the program, a writer refers to Mozart’s “Shakespearean Diversity,” and that’s exactly so. The richness of content in “Don Giovanni”—and Mozart had considerable help with his favorite librettist Lorenzo da Ponte—contains, like “Hamlet,” the world. And it’s a big world, after all.

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