Arts » Theater

Return of the Don

by Philip Campbell
Sunday Jun 18, 2017

The second presentation in San Francisco Opera's summer season opened last week with Mozart's immortal masterpiece "Don Giovanni." Making his SFO debut, director Jacopo Spirei has revised Gabriele Lavia's production from 2011. The Company is calling it a reboot.

From a visual standpoint we call it recycling. Repurposing original set designer Alessandro Camera's numerous moving mirrors as darkened panels for Tommi Brem's (SFO debut) projections actually becomes an annoyance. When the performers sing about someone, the subject is projected behind, above or around them. It is a promising concept that soon wears thin. It's predictable and too on-the-nose.

The antique chairs have returned, but the hideous Astroturf has vanished. Some tacky hedges are back, and the "mirrors" are hyperactive. Andrea Viotti's gorgeous costumes remain impeccable.

The old show didn't upstage the singers with pointless technology. The re-staging works best when a simple black drop descends and we can refocus on the music and characterful acting. Spirei also surpasses with some insightful touches that restore needed comic relief to a disturbingly dark story. He also has an international cast that can turn from drama to comedy on a lira.

Mozart and librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte fashioned an enduring drama giocoso filled with insights into human nature. Like a Shakespeare play, "Don Giovanni" can still shock and amuse us today.

The singers and orchestral musicians of the current production handle every nuance with intelligence and skill. French conductor Marc Minkowski, celebrated for his longtime direction of the period-instrument ensemble Les Musiciens du Louvre, also cuts loose in his impressive SFO debut. Subtle recitative accompaniment by Robert Mollicone on the fortepiano adds historical texture to the lush orchestral sound. This is a big-boned interpretation for modern listeners. It moves with urgency, and remains relevant despite the distracting visuals.

Before the opening matinee, General Director Matthew Shilvock announced bass-baritone Ildebrando D'Arcangelo was feeling poorly, but would still appear in the title role. There was a general gasp of relief. Along with Erwin Schrott (replacing previously contracted Marco Vinco), D'Arcangelo was making his highly anticipated SFO debut.

No need to lower the bar. The magnetic international star gave a full-powered performance from start to finish. His looks, charm, and big, rich sound combined to make an appealing and refreshingly complex portrait of the sex-addicted Don.

Bass Marco Vinco was a fine Leporello in 2011, but we couldn't deny enthusiasm for his replacement. Uruguayan bass-baritone Erwin Schrott has essayed both of the leading roles to great acclaim. In an afternoon of stellar SFO debuts, he took the stage effortlessly with a sexy blend of comedy and generously produced sound. His conflicted manservant is afraid of and fascinated by his dissolute master. He is also laugh-out-loud funny.

Texan soprano Ana Maria Martinez was another standout in the part of Donna Elvira. The SFO veteran added warmth to a character too often portrayed as deranged and shrewish. We felt for her pitiable rejection and could almost understand her mania. She expertly applied hard-etched rolled "r's" to add clout to her punchlines.

Bass Andrea Silvestrelli is busy this summer season. His huge voice is a great fit for Sparafucile in "Rigoletto," and he fills the War Memorial with commanding tone as the vengeful Commendatore in "Don Giovanni."

The roles of the peasant couple Masetto and Zerlina are performed by bass-baritone Michael Sumuel and soprano Sarah Shafer. A little too physically imposing to be completely believable, Sumuel still portrays the challenged young bridegroom with intensity. Shafer is sweet, but needs more vixen in her voice to add personality.

Canadian soprano Erin Wall and French tenor Stanislas de Barbeyrac (SFO and U.S. debuts) are elegant as the aristocratic Donna Anna and Don Ottavio. Their roles in the drama are often less interesting, but Wall injects spirit and beautiful sound to add complexity. De Barbeyrac justifies the replacement of an often-cut recitative with his subtly shaded acting and pure, clear tone.

"Don Giovanni" continues in repertory through June 30. There is a free live simulcast at AT&T Park on Friday, June 30

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