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Lyric Opera takes a no-nonsense approach to impassioned ‘Don Giovanni’

Although this opera is very much a comedy, Mozart and his well-reputed librettist, Lorenzo Da Ponte, never shirk from the sinister truth surrounding their central character.

Lucas Meachem stars as the title character in Lyric Opera of Chicago’s production of “Don Giovanni.”
Lucas Meachem stars as the title character in Lyric Opera of Chicago’s production of “Don Giovanni” directed by Robert Falls.
Kyle Flubacker

Any work of art that has survived more than two centuries is inevitably seen through the prism of each new era in which it is presented, and that is certainly the case with Mozart’s ever-popular 1787 operatic masterpiece, “Don Giovanni.”

This tale of the legendary seducer, Don Juan — in truth, a sexual predator — cannot help but be viewed today against the backdrop of the #MeToo movement, which dates to 2006 but really took fire in 2017 following the revelations surrounding movie mogul Harvey Weinstein.

But as Lyric Opera of Chicago’s clear-eyed revival of its 2014-15 production of “Don Giovanni” makes clear, there is no need to try and tweak this venerable work or somehow make concessions to today’s changing realities.

Although this opera is very much a comedy, Mozart and his well-reputed librettist, Lorenzo Da Ponte, never shirk from the sinister truth surrounding their central character. Giovanni gets his deserved comeuppance in the end as he is (spoiler alert) literally dropped into hell.

And in this production, which opened Thursday evening, that condemnation scene is thrillingly effective. Giovanni’s massive banquet table is tilted upward with the miscreant clinging to it for dear life, and both he and it slide downward into the fiery abyss of the netherworld.

Amanda Majeski delivers a commanding performance as Donna Elvira in “Don Giovanni” at Lyric Opera of Chicago.
Amanda Majeski delivers a commanding performance as Donna Elvira in “Don Giovanni” at Lyric Opera of Chicago.
Kyle Flubacker

Although Giovanni is obviously the opera’s central character, the heart of the story really focuses on a trio of women wronged by him — Donna Anna, Donna Elvira and Zerlina — whom Mozart and Da Ponte portray not as victims but as strong, #MeToo women reasserting their independence.

To be successful, a stage director need only trust and embrace this work, and that’s exactly what Robert Falls, artistic director of Chicago’s Goodman Theatre, has done here. Other than shifting the action to the 1920s, which works well, there are no dramatic gimmicks or contrivances.

Instead, he simply presents this opera in a probing, straightforward way, doing an adroit job of threading the humor and darkness of this story and not shirking from the physically invasive — and sometimes disturbing — aspects of Giovanni’s conquests.

The elaborate, highly realistic sets by Walt Spangler looks like portions of actual street buildings were moved onto the stage. Particularly impressive are the giant rows of swooping grapevines outside Giovanni’s villa in Scene 3 of Act 1.

Mika Kares (left, as the Commendatore) and Lucas Meachem as Giovanni in a scene from the Robert Falls production of “Don Giovanni” at Lyric Opera of Chicago.
Mika Kares (left, as the Commendatore) and Lucas Meachem as Giovanni in a scene from the Robert Falls production of “Don Giovanni” at Lyric Opera of Chicago.
Kyle Flubacker

Also deserving note are Ana Kuzmanic’s eye-grabbing costumes, especially Donna Elvira’s electric orange ensemble, and the Commendatore, who really looks like a green-tinted bronze statue come to life.

Lyric Opera has assembled a first-rate cast for this revival, starting with baritone Lucas Meachem, who is completely convincing as Giovanni both vocally and dramatically. (Davide Luciano takes over the part in December.)

Meachem possesses the rakish looks essential to the role and aptly conjures Giovanni’s limitless self-confidence and sensual appeal, with graceful, sweeping gestures and sturdy, preening postures, as well as the character’s menacing edge.

He is ideally balanced by bass Matthew Rose, who wonderfully animates Leporello, Giovanni’s valet — an opera-buffa type who supplies much of the production’s humor and serves as a kind of court jester, revealing uncomfortable truths about his boss.

Rose revels in all the physical, even slapstick comedy that this important role demands while handling its considerable vocal demands — including patter song and intricate ornamentations — with commendable agility and seeming ease.

All three of the women are fine singers, starting with Amanda Majeski, who has deservedly become something of a fixture at Lyric Opera. She commands the stage as Donna Elvira with her silver-toned, forceful soprano voice and adroitly negotiates the character’s complex, ever-changing feelings around Giovanni. Much the same is true with Rachel Willis-Sorensen, a full-voiced soprano who potently realizes the role of the grieving Donna Anna.

The revelation here, though, is Chinese soprano Ying Fang, who, in her Lyric debut, displays all the qualities needed for a major career. She possesses an appealingly natural stage presence and charmingly conveys the waifish innocence and allure of Zerlina. Perhaps most impressive, though, is her singing. With a nuanced, translucent and often transfixing voice, Fang is able, even in her softest moments, to powerfully project even in the vast expanse of the theater.

Finnish bass Mika Kares offered a suitably stentorian performance as the Commendatore, and bass-baritone Brandon Cedel was effective as Masetto. But with his sometimes thin voice and perfunctory acting, tenor Ben Bliss came off as an underwhelming Don Ottavio.

Providing a big boost to these singers and the production as a whole was James Gaffigan, a fast-rising conductor who displays an obvious affinity for Mozart and injects this production with ample energy and vitality.

Kyle MacMillan is a local freelance writer.