Flawed design elements keep a well-sung Mozart favorite from reaching its full potential of pleasure
You have to give The Washington Opera credit for approaching its year-long relocation from the Kennedy Center Opera House to DAR Constitution Hall with a remarkable sense of reinvention. With a sprawling custom-built thrust stage and soaring expanse of floor-to-ceiling space as their canvas, the company has given itself license to explore bold staging and design approaches that would generally be out of the question in a conventional venue.
Their sense of adventure paid off handsomely in their first Constitution Hall outing, Aida, in which set pieces were essentially abandoned entirely in favor of digital projections that kept every surface -- stage, bare scrims and sheer curtains, even singers' bodies -- awash in a mesmerizing, dream-like swirl of images.
An identical approach to Mozart's Don Giovanni, the Opera's second production in the hall, certainly wouldn't be called for. Still, the visual stakes are just as high in a cavernous space where singers alone cannot carry a production. And there's a lesson from Aida -- to keep it simple -- that seems lost on Don Giovanni, burdened with a behemoth of a set that's clearly more trouble that it's worth.
A massive door/balcony/stairwell unit and four huge surrounding columns -- part of a design by John Pascoe, who also directs -- have to be moved manually, independently of each other, and very slowly, only to create subtle visual variations to suggest the plot locales in 17th-century Seville. Projections are employed as well, but primarily to create travelogue-like backdrops.
In this out-of-whack design realm, dramatic flow and momentum are halting at best, and a three-hour running time promised in the program came in on opening night last Saturday less than fifteen minutes shy of the four-hour mark. Under these circumstances, no matter how well the singers perform, the production's potential for pleasure is significantly short-changed.
That's a shame, because the cast is top-notch. Bass Erwin Schrott sings and acts the role of Don Giovanni impressively, conveying the full sense of the swaggering passion and compulsion that drive the character in his endless pursuit of sexual conquests. Schrott does particularly strong work in the climactic scene when Don Giovanni faces spiritual comeuppance for his sins with visible terror, yet still filled with enough devil-may-care confidence to keep him beyond redemption.
Bass Robert Pomakov is consistently pleasing, both aurally and comedically, as Leporello, Don Giovanni's long-suffering servant. Soprano Tatiana Pavlovskaya meets the vocal demands of Donna Elivira beautifully, and does well with the character's conflicting emotions as she's torn between anger toward Don Giovanni for abandoning her and a lingering attraction to him.
Soprano Natalia Ushakova also enjoys radiant solo moments as Donna Anna while keeping a solid grasp on a sense of vengeance toward Don Giovanni after he kills her father. Tenor Daniil Shtoda complements Ushakova well as Donna Anna's fianc é Don Ottavio, and the roles of the peasants Zerlina and Masetto are well-cast with, respectively, soprano Irina Mataeva and baritone Hung Yun.
Maestro Domingo clearly has musical matters under tight control. Still, it's only half the battle in the Opera's current production environment, and hopefully after a design-debilitated Don Giovanni, they won't make the same mistakes twice.
On 4/3 and 4/11, Donna Elvira will be performed by Jennifer Casey Cabot, and Donna Anna will be performed by Riikka Hakola. On 4/11, Masetto will be performed by James Shaffran.