‘Don Giovanni’ Returns in a Hall of Mirrors

By Elsa Tranter

Photos by Cory Weaver, San Francisco Opera

San Francisco Opera’s second (of three) summer productions is Mozart’s Don Giovanni, a perennial favorite—often called a dramedy—part tragedy, part comedy.  This is its 24th staging at the opera house; it is interesting to note that the famous bass-baritone Ezio Pinza sang the title role in the first six seasons it played in San Francisco, between 1938 and 1948.  This year Italian bass-baritone Ildebrando D’Arcangelo makes his SF debut in the role; he is a strikingly handsome, sensual performer with an appropriate air of entitlement and sings lustily throughout, full of spirit if lacking in character and never repenting of his womanizing ways (not to mention his act of murder) even at the bitter end.

Ildebrando D’Arcangelo as Don

Ildebrando D’Arcangelo as Don

The many women he pursues each represents a different ‘type’ of woman—Donna Anna, the proud aristocrat, who wants vengeance, is sung in the production by Canadian soprano Erin Wall, making her San Francisco debut as well.  Her demeanor is elegant, her coloratura voice fluid and lush.  She takes the high road, wanting justice for the murder of her father. 

Donna Elvira, who has been tossed aside by the Don, only wants him back.  We’ve all known (or been) a woman like that and can feel sadness and pity for her suffering.  As with Gilda in Rigoletto, we want to tell her to ‘forget him’.  In this production the role is sung by Puerto Rican soprano Ana Maria Martinez, whose voice takes on a somewhat strident tone, quite in keeping with her frustrated energy. 

The third object of Don Giovanni’s attention is the servant girl Zerlina, sung with wit and sparkle by American soprano Sarah Shafer.  She considers the Don’s seduction but sensibly realizes that her fate lies elsewhere.  Aside from the thousands of previous conquests (recounted in the famous ‘catalog’ aria of the first act), Don Giovanni also tries to seduce Donna Elvira’s maid.  But at no time in the opera (or at least in this production) do we have any real evidence that he has succeeded in his efforts.  Perhaps that’s a sign of changing mores among opera goers.

As Don Giovanni’s loyal (mostly) servant, Uruguayan bass-baritone Erwin Schrott makes his San Francisco debut.  He is an excellent comic actor and is a good physical and vocal match for Don Giovanni.  He sings with great gusto and panache throughout, most especially in the aforementioned ‘catalog’ aria and in his impersonation of his ‘boss’ when wooing Donna Elvira’s maid.  (For the final two performances the role will be sung by American bass Erik Anstine.)  Mr. D’Arcangelo and Mr. Schrott have sung this opera together at the Metropolitan Opera, in 2008, reversing their roles.  It would be fun to see them do that here, in the way that Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller nightly alternated the roles of Dr. Frankenstein and his monster in the National Theatre’s production of Frankenstein.

Rounding out the cast are French tenor Stanislas de Barbeyrac in his American debut as Don Ottavio, American bass-baritone Michael Sumuel as Masetto and Italian bass Andrea Silvestrelli as the Commendatore.  Each of them is appropriately cast and sings well with the ensemble.

French conductor Marc Minkowski makes his San Francisco opera debut and leads the orchestra through a seamless flow of the familiar Mozart music, from dark and sinister to lilting and light, back and forth throughout the evening. 

The set design is a slight remake by Jacopo Spirei of the original from 2011, with the addition of projections (by Tommi Brem) on the original set of 21 giant mirrors which go up and down throughout the opera.  As a light-walker during a lighting rehearsal, I was frequently asked to watch out for ‘mirrors coming down’;  I hope the singers were well prepared for keeping out of their way.  In general, the staging is reasonably effective if not particularly imaginative.  The costumes were designed for the 2011 production by Andrea Viotti; they are not notable for adding to the production.

In the epilogue of the opera (not always included), after Don Giovanni’s descent into hell, the other characters cite the moral of the opera: “This is the evil-doers end, and sinners will die just as they have lived.”  The pre-performance lecturer, Dr. Kayleen Asbo, reminds us that Mozart’s opera remains relevant even today.

All in all, it is a serviceable, well balanced, if not spectacular, production and very worth seeing and hearing. There are four performances remaining, June 16, 21, 24, and 30, all at 7:30.  The final performance will be telecast free of charge at the SF baseball park.

Elsa Tranter is a Bostonian who has lived in Berkeley for over 40 years and has been an opera goer for most of those years.  She worked as a graduate student adviser at UC Berkeley and still attends Cal Performances regularly.  Her favorite composer is Wagner and her favorite opera is Tristan und Isolde.